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Trump signs largest wilderness protection bill in a decade

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. (Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/TNS)

Capping a rare bipartisan effort in Congress, President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law the largest wilderness preservation bill in a decade, a measure that includes new protections for California’s Mojave Desert.

The new law, which passed the U.S. Senate last month by a vote of 92-8, designates 1.3 million acres of federal land in California, Oregon, Utah and New Mexico as wilderness, the highest level of protection, in which logging, oil drilling, mining and road-building are banned.

Among its provisions, the measure establishes 375,000 acres of new wilderness — an area nearly 13 times the size of San Francisco — in the Mojave Desert, most of it on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The legislation also enlarges Death Valley National Park by 35,929 acres and Joshua Tree National Park by 4,518 acres.

The White House did not issue a news release or remarks from Trump after he signed the bill, which also passed the House 362-63, enough to override a potential veto.

But Geary Hund, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said, “This legislation is a huge win for conservation.”

He added, “It ensures that some of the most important natural and cultural resources in the Mojave Desert will be protected and connected in perpetuity.”

The last time a major federal wilderness law passed was in March 2009, when former President Barack Obama signed a measure establishing 2 million acres of new wilderness across the West, including 710,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada, Angeles National Forest and California desert.

The new law, called the “John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act,” in honor of the late Michigan congressman, comes after Trump has worked to weaken environmental protections for most of his presidency.

On Monday, he introduced a proposed federal budget that would cut funding by 31 percent for the Environmental Protection Agency and by 14 percent for the Department of Interior, and eliminate the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. The budget is highly unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

Trump also named a former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and appointed David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for Westlands Water District, the largest farm irrigation district in California, as interior secretary.

Over the past two years, the president has released plans for new offshore drilling off California, Oregon, Washington and the Atlantic Coast, and pushed for new drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He significantly reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — and has worked to remove protections on millions of acres for the sage grouse, gray wolf and other at-risk species, and has signaled the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“This is a strong start and an opportunity to turn the corner after two years of backsliding by the Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, an environmental group. “By passing this momentous bill, Congress has embraced conservation and protection of our nation’s wild lands and waters.”

The bill signed Thursday is a collection of more than 100 pieces of legislation written by a broad mix of Democrats and Republicans. It sets aside 621 miles of rivers for new protections, establishes new national monuments at Civil War sites in Kentucky and in Mississippi to honor civil rights leaders Medgar and Myrlie Evers, and provides Native Alaskan Vietnam veterans the ability to homestead federal land in Alaska. It also extends for seven years the “Every Kid in a Park” program, started in the Obama administration, which gives fourth-grade students and their families free admission to all national parks.

The provision that drew the most support from GOP leaders, however, ensuring passage, was a measure to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That law, passed in 1964, is America’s largest source of funding to not only expand national parks and wildlife refuges, but to provide grants to states and cities to create new local parks, baseball fields, community swimming pools, boat marinas and other outdoor amenities. In Trump’s budget plan Monday, he proposed cutting spending from the fund by 95 percent, a move that Congress is expected to reverse.


© 2019 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.