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Lame duck Congress protects 1 million acres of public lands

National defense bill protects premier landscapes, fishing, hunting and recreation spots -- and riders that could pose threats to fish and wildlife


New Mexico's Valles Caldera Preserve will be managed by the National Park Service, thanks to a bill passed by Congress. Image: Valles Caldera National Preserve.New Mexico's Valles Caldera Preserve will be managed by the National Park Service, thanks to a bill passed by Congress. Image: Valles Caldera National Preserve.

“Too bad every Congress isn't filled with lame ducks.”

That was Bob Marshall’s opening to his story in Field & Stream on the new national defense spending bill that protects about a million acres of public lands, including some premier fish and wildlife habitats and landscapes in the West. The bill, passed by Congress last week, also contains provisions potentially harmful to conservation, but more about that later.

"It’s the holiday season and Congress has given Americans an early gift – protection for roughly a million acres of watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat and prized recreation areas on public lands.” Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation president and CEO.

“The nearly 100 public lands bills in the National Defense Authorization Act are, taken in whole, beneficial to sportsmen’s access and conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of valuable habitat for fish and game.” Whit Fosburgh, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership president and CEO.

“This package of bills represents the culmination of years of hard work by our staff and our volunteers on the ground and our partners all across the West.” Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited president and CEO

Some of the public lands gaining protection are:

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area and Wilderness: This provision establishes the 208,160-acre Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area, and adds 50,401 acres of national forest land to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,711 acres of forest land to the Scapegoat Wilderness. The area is home to mule deer, bighorn sheep and elk. The Conservation Management Area gives flexibility to the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to manage all wildlife habitat.

The Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area and wilderness provide habitat for mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Image: Gene SentzThe Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area and wilderness provide habitat for mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Image: Gene Sentz

Montana, North Fork watershed mineral withdrawal: This withdraws about 362,000 acres of public lands west of Glacier National Park from future oil, gas and mining development. The North Fork watershed is a world premier destination for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation. The  Flathead River Valley provides important habitat for diverse populations of large game such as grizzly bears and elk as well as pristine rivers and streams for native trout species.

Colorado’s Hermosa Creek: About 71,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains will be set aside as a special management area and 38,000 acres will be wilderness. Sportsmen and women, wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts have worked several years to protect this area, which contains an entire watershed and is habitat for big game and native cutthroat trout.

New Mexico’s Columbine-Hondo Wilderness: The bill designates the 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area in the Carson National Forest as wilderness. Columbine-Hondo is a key wildlife corridor for a variety of species including elk, deer and antelope. The wilderness designation will safeguard coldwater fisheries and a fragile high alpine ecosystem, including important seasonal habitat for wildlife and migratory birds.

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich and others in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area, which will be designated as wilderness. Image: New Mexico Wildlife Federation.New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich and others in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area, which will be designated as wilderness. Image: New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

New Mexico’s Valles Caldera: The bill transfers the Valles Caldera National Preserve to management by the National Park Service. That will ensures that science and education programs, visitor management, and adequate law enforcement continues to be funded at levels necessary to maintain the high quality hunting and fishing experience.

"This legislation will change the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains from a politically appointed board of trustees to the National Park Service, which will ensure the area remains the crown jewel among the state’s public lands,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation executive director.

Included in the defense bill are some troublesome provisions. These include riders that would: essentially allow approval of grazing permits on public land in perpetuity with little public scrutiny, posing a threat to native wildlife; facilitate a public-private land exchange that will allow development of the Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona's Sonoran desert without a thorough environmental review.

 “This bill is far from perfect, but it is a net gain for hunters and anglers,” said Joel Webster, director of the TRCP Center for Western Lands.

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