Editor's Note: On Tuesday, March 12 the president signed the Public Lands package into law. Learn more about how the Natural Resources Management Act preserves historic resources and cultural landscapes, including the Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, nationally significant sites associated with the Reconstruction Era, as well how it allows for lasting impact on a wide range of programs, sites, and landscapes by permanently reauthorizing programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Last week the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Natural Resources Management Act (S. 47), a legislative package of more than 100 bills with provisions preserving and protecting our public lands and cultural resources. The achievement protects millions of acres of land, establishes four new national monuments, and significantly expands existing national parks. The package reflects several years of legislative activity in the House of Representatives and Senate and includes bills that, in some cases, have cleared the committee process several times over the course of multiple Congresses.
How We Got Here
The House Natural Resources and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees successfully cleared dozens of bills in the 115th Congress (2018–19) after multiple hearings and markup sessions. Recognizing the significant amount of pending bipartisan bills eligible for a themed legislative package, committee staff launched a collaborative process to bundle these bills into one piece of legislation that would draw the support of a majority of both bodies.
After the 2018 election, and as Congress approached the looming deadline for expiration of a continuing resolution funding the federal government, efforts began in earnest to quickly secure passage of the package prior to a partial government shutdown and the start of the 116th Congress. Unfortunately, in the final hours before the shutdown and Christmas holidays, opposition from a few senators prevented the bill’s quick passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to bring the public lands package to the Senate floor early in 2019.
In January the public lands package was formally introduced in the 116th Congress as the Natural Resources Management Act. The more-than-600-page bill was packed with provisions that had been cosponsored by nearly 90 senators in the previous Congress. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s public lands team worked with Senate offices and committee staff to advocate for preservation provisions and submitted a letter outlining our priorities.
Preservation Priorities in the Public Lands Package
The National Trust is pleased to see a number of important historic preservation priorities highlighted in the package. We enthusiastically endorse several provisions, including:
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park Boundary Act
This bill, which is at the center of our National Treasure campaign, would redesignate the Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia, as the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, adjust its boundaries, and provide for a resource study to evaluate archaeological resources and Muscogee (Creek) heritage sites along the river. The Ocmulgee National Monument protects, in part, large earthen mounds constructed between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1650, as well as rich wildlife and recreation resources, while telling the story of the nation’s early frontier history. This proposal has bipartisan support and has passed the House in multiple Congresses.
Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act
This bill, which passed the House unanimously in September, would redesignate and expand the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina—which commemorates the stories of African Americans in the South immediately following the Civil War—and establish the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network. The legislation includes authority for park boundary adjustments or expansions within the Beaufort National Historic Landmark District on St. Helena Island and at the Camp Saxton Site in Port Royal.
It would also establish a network of existing National Park Service (NPS) units and programs related to the history of the Reconstruction era; properties and programs of other federal, state, local, and private entities would be able to apply to join the network. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and the African American Civil Rights Network already use such a model.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities Historic Preservation Program
A provision in this package would reauthorize the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Historic Preservation Program, which funds preservation work on HBCU campuses. It would catalyze much-needed rehabilitation work to preserve the legacy of historic sites at HBCUs and vital pieces of the African American story. This legislation passed the House unanimously in June 1017.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
The package includes a provision to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Since its inception in 1965, the LWCF has been a proven, effective, and flexible tool for saving places with important cultural and historic significance. The LWCF has invested more than $550 million to buy land in our nation’s historic and cultural parks managed by the NPS and many millions more to acquire culturally significant public lands that tell diverse stories of our nation’s history.
In addition to these key priorities, the National Trust worked closely with congressional staff to include a provision with technical corrections for the African American Civil Rights Network. Previously, the Trust had also provided testimony supporting other provisions in the package—specifically, ones related to the Shiloh National Military Park in Shiloh, Tennessee; the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Kennesaw, Georgia; and the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home in Jackson, Mississippi.
The Amendment Process and Passage
Over the course of four days, the Senate deliberated the public lands package and considered several amendments during the floor debate. Throughout the discussion, Sen. McConnell; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and others cautioned that the legislation had been carefully crafted as part of a bipartisan, bicameral compromise and that adopting the amendments could jeopardize its approval by the House.
Thankfully, the Senate rejected several amendments, which the National Trust also opposed:
Amendment diverting LWCF funds
Offered by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., this amendment would have diverted 5 percent of funds from the LWCF to address deferred maintenance needs. It would also have required that any new federal land acquisitions include funding for deferred maintenance at the time of acquisition. While many Senators and organizations like the National Trust recognize the need to address deferred maintenance at federal agencies like the NPS, the argument for avoiding a false choice between key investments in our public lands as well as avoiding restricting the LWCF program prevailed. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 66-33.
Amendment to strike permanent LWCF reauthorization
Offered by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, this amendment would have reduced the LWCF reauthorization period to five years, whereas the underlying legislation reauthorizes the LWCF permanently. During the floor debate, senators successfully made the case that permanent reauthorization provided certainty for the popular program, and the amendment was defeated by a vote of 68-30.
Amendment to limit the establishment of national monuments in Utah
Offered by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, this amendment would have undermined the Antiquities Act and the preservation of historic and cultural resources by prohibiting the president from designating national monuments in the state of Utah unless expressly authorized by Congress. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 60-33.
At the conclusion of the amendment process, the Senate voted on final passage (92-8), sending the biggest public lands package in a decade to their counterparts in the House. Members of Congress celebrated the bipartisan and bicameral collaboration: “It’s one of the biggest bipartisan wins for this country I’ve ever seen in Congress,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Let’s Get This to the President’s Desk!
The public lands package is now in the hands of the House. Congress is out of session this week, but the legislation could be scheduled for House floor consideration as early as the week of February 25.
With that timeline in mind, please use our action alert to send a message of support for the legislation to your House representative. If you’re making a phone call, be sure to express support and note the positive impact on historic preservation for our nation. Thank you for all your work to ensure that this landmark legislation features historic preservation!
Pam Bowman is the director of public lands policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.