One of the biggest Congressional conservation victories in decades will provide significant funding for projects in the central Cascades.
President Donald Trump plans to sign the Great American Outdoors Act soon after it was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. One of the bill’s major provisions fully funds the Land, Water and Conservation Fund for the first time since its creation in the 1960s, providing $900 million annually.
The Nature Conservancy’s Cle Elum-based forest partnerships manager, Darcy Batura, said some of that money will help transfer critical lands near Snoqualmie Pass and in the Little Naches area to the Forest Service. By eliminating inefficiencies and roadblocks caused by multiple property owners, projects can move forward to achieve important goals such as improving recreation access, reducing fire risk and protecting clean water.
“People don’t typically know exactly where land goes from Forest Service onto private lands and back,” Batura said. “Certainly the animals don’t.”
The Nature Conservancy successfully transferred 11,000 acres to the Forest Service and plans to acquire another 5,600 acres with $5.5 million from the LWCF in fiscal year 2021. Batura said that would allow the Forest Service to address watershed health without worrying about arbitrary boundaries or potential development and recreation closures.
Little Naches working group chair Lloyd McGee said fully funding the LWCF should significantly boost efforts in the popular recreation area. Along with various restoration projects, McGee said more LWCF ownership of the lands and more funds for maintenance will put the Forest Service in a better position to manage its roads.
"It's going to change the dynamics of the travel analysis plan," McGee said. "If they’re too expensive to maintain, plus they’re doing habitat degradation, those roads may need to be eliminated."
Cathy Baker, The Nature Conservancy's federal relations director, said groups representing virtually all types of recreation voiced their support for the new bill. The LWCF will guarantee access and potentially improve accessibility for disabled persons while helping preserve views along the Pacific Crest Trail and other popular trails.
But not everyone supported the increased funding for LWCF, including Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside), the only member of Washington's 12-member delegation to vote against the Great American Outdoors Act. Newhouse joined others in arguing the bill gives an untrustworthy federal government too much power to expand public lands.
"I fear that the sweeping nature of this legislation will have unintended consequences for rural communities like mine," Newhouse said in a speech on the House floor. "The farmers and ranchers, the hardworking men and women of my district support local management and control of our lands."
He agreed with provisions in the bill that would provide up to $9.5 billion over the next five years for deferred maintenance on federal lands, mostly for national parks, where the backlog is estimated at $12 billion. Nicky Pasi, the Upper Yakima community coordinator for the Mountains to Sound Greenway, said extra maintenance funds will also be critical for recreation areas on Forest Service land.
The Greenway's conserved more than 90,000 acres of land at 50 different sites between Seattle and Ellensburg using money from the LWCF. Pasi said funding from the Great American Outdoor Act should improve the management and restoration of those lands.
McGee stressed transparency and listening to input from all stakeholders would be important as plans move forward in the Little Naches. A diverse group of supporters includes, among others, the Kitittas County Chamber of Commerce, the Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Recover Board, and the Yakama Nation, whose treaty rights will be restored on lands that go from private ownership to public.
Batura said no one's being forced to sell their land, which would likely remain fragmented and potentially lead to some areas being closed to recreation without conservation efforts. Both Batura and Pasi said more people than ever before are enjoying the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic, increasing the ever-present need to protect those lands.
"The fact that this is a bipartisan effort that has enjoyed so much support is just incredibly heartening," Batura said. "It's refreshing and I just hope that it builds momentum that helps to unite."