Winning playbook in tumultuous times: the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act

March 6, 2019

This is an easy time to be cynical. Washington D.C. has always been a cesspool, but now it bubbles 24/7/365 on our pocket phones. A steady stream can lead one to throw away the bottlecap and wait for the zombies of the apocalypse.

Then along comes the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. Congress scores a home run. Cynics are routed.

Sometimes called the “Public Lands Bill,” the bill is an amalgamation of 100 pieces of legislation. Much of it, frankly, is obscure and local. But a lot of it is nationally important. At Resource Media, we’ve been following several elements:

  • Land & Water Conservation Fund. This was the law of the land for 53 years until it expired in September. LWCF is a piggy bank that allows Congress to take up to $900 million in royalties from off-shore drilling and direct it toward protecting wildlife habitat, parks, recreation and outdoor access in both urban and rural counties nationwide. Unbelievably, it was held hostage by some of the most strident anti-public lands zealots in Congress. But now it will be permanently reauthorized.
  • Local conservation provisions such as the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan in Washington state and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in Montana.
  • One million acres of protected Wilderness Areas. In this day and age, all the “easy” wilderness areas have been protected. This bill protects lands in California, Oregon, New Mexico and Utah.
  • Six hundred miles of waterways protected in Oregon, Utah and New England. (Yes, Utah again!) under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Not only did this bill pass, but it redefined the concept of “bipartisan landslide.” It passed the Senate 92-8 and the House 363-62. It now awaits President Trump’s signature.

So how did this bill break through the hyper-partisan gridlock that makes it hard for Congress to even function, let alone do good things?

Patience, persistence, grassroots sweat and a willingness to work neighbor-to-neighbor toward shared goals. In Montana, conservationists worked with local ranchers, landowners and business owners to protect the Paradise Valley from mining; across the United States, sportsmen, conservationists and others built a bombproof bipartisan coalition for not just renewing but permanently reauthorizing LWCF. Similar coalitions hammered out agreements for protecting pristine public lands as wilderness and identifying particularly special portions of rivers and streams to conserve. All this took time, persistence and a long-game vision.

My colleague Belinda Griswold worked on the Yakima River provisions. She summed it up like this:

“The key was to find common interests among downstream farmers, upstream conservationists, and the Yakama Nation, which depends on the return of healthy salmon runs. The magic bullet is protecting and restoring upstream forests – because healthy forests ensure water security, especially in climate chaotic times. Many years of hard work resulted in a deal that works for everyone, and a powerful coalition of unlikely allies who will keep pushing to make it a reality.”

Make no mistake. The results of this kind of work is not perfect and is never easy. Many of these provisions took decades of labor and required painful sacrifices. But it got done.

Let’s wrap up with a couple quotes from a sharp pen from Texas, the late Molly Ivins, who knew about uphill battles.

“Being a cynic is contemptibly easy. If you let yourself think that nothing you’re working on is ever going to make a difference, why bust your tail over it? Why care? If you’re a cynic, you don’t have to invest anything in your work. No effort, no pride, no compassion, no sense of excellence, nothing.”

And one more:

“Cynics lose; people win; democracy works. What a deal.”

Ben Long