On the Hill: Public Lands Policy Issues March Forward in Congress

By Pam Bowman posted 07-27-2021 11:36


The first half of 2021 saw substantial progress for preservation priorities and especially for public lands-related policy issues, with numerous bills advancing through the legislative process as the 117th Congress got underway. From civil rights legislation and federal designations, to annual appropriations and administrative action, the stage is set for continued progress in the weeks and months to come. 

A Big Win for Preserving Julius Rosenwald’s Legacy and Rosenwald Schools

Black and white image of a group of people standing in front of a Rosenwald School.
A gathering at a former Rosenwald School in Greeleyville, South Carolina. | Credit: Fisk University Archives

On Jan. 13, the president signed into law the Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools Act (H.R. 3250) following the quick passage of the legislation by the House and Senate in late December. The bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) in the Senate, authorized a special resource study of sites associated with the life and legacy of Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools. The National Trust has worked closely with the Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park Campaign, National Parks Conservation Association, and other partners to advance this legislation with the goal of establishing a national historical park to celebrate the remarkable legacy of Julius Rosenwald and his partnership with Booker T. Washington to establish Rosenwald Schools throughout the segregated South. 

Work on this campaign now shifts to the National Park Service, which will undertake that special resource study and evaluate inclusion of several locations as part of the National Park System. The National Trust has a long history working to save Rosenwald Schools, including placing the schools on the 2002 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List and submitting testimony to Congress. We will continue our collaborative efforts with partners to make the new National Park Service site a reality.

February Marks Beginning of Steady Progress for Brown v. Board of Education Legislation

The second month of the year launched a series of milestones for advancing legislation to tell a more complete story of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of American public schools. Though Brown v. Board is most often associated with the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, the court case was a compilation of five cases that include the stories of other communities in Delaware, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. 

On Feb. 8, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site Expansion Act (H.R. 920/S. 270) was re-introduced by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE)—a bill that would establish National Park Service Affiliated Areas and expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site to include related sites in South Carolina. The bipartisan and bicameral legislation is supported by the full House and Senate delegations representing these communities.  

Exterior of Moton High School, a brick building in Farmville, Virginia.
Exterior of Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. | Credit: Curtis Martin

The House and Senate bills have already had successful congressional hearings in their respective committees. On April 21, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a hearing focused on four bills highlighting diverse stories of our nation’s history, including H.R. 920. The National Trust engaged in extensive advocacy for the hearing, as well as testifying on the witness panel. A few weeks later, the Senate held its deliberations on the legislation at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources National Parks Subcommittee. 

In partnership with the offices of Majority Whip Clyburn and Senator Coons, the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will continue to engage in a multi-year effort working with local and national partners to tell a more complete story of the ongoing struggle for educational equity. In addition to viewing our Brown v. Board webinar series, you can also take action by sending a letter to your members of Congress asking them to support the House and Senate bills and maintain the momentum on this legislative effort.

Spring and Summer Bring New Beginnings for Key Legislation

New legislation that would establish the Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley and Roberts Temple National Historic Site (S. 795) was introduced by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) on March 17. Civil Rights activist Mamie Till-Mobley was a member of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, which was the location of the historic funeral for her 14-year-old son, who was brutally murdered in August 1955 during a visit to Money, Mississippi, for offending a white woman in a country store. The death of Till and his subsequent open-casket funeral, attended by tens of thousands of people, became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The National Trust placed Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2020 and has provided grants and technical assistance to restore and preserve the site. The National Trust will continue our work at this historic location alongside our partners. You can learn more about this work by joining our July 29 webinar and engaging in this campaign by signing the petition

Other bills, new and old, endorsed by the National Trust were featured in congressional hearings and markups including the: 

  • New Philadelphia National Historical Park Act (H.R. 820) – would establish a NPS unit for New Philadelphia in Illinois. Founded in 1836 by Frank McWorter, New Philadelphia is a National Historic Landmark and is the first town known to be platted and legally registered by an African American prior to the Civil War;
  • Amache National Historic Site Act (H.R. 2497 /S. 1284) – would create a National Historic Site in Colorado honoring over 7,500 individuals of Japanese descent unjustly and forcibly incarcerated during World War II;
  • Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act (H.R. 2930/S. 1471) – bipartisan and bicameral legislation that would strengthen laws aimed at preventing trafficking in Native American cultural items and facilitate the voluntary return of sacred and cultural items; and
  • Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act (H.R. 1154/S. 470) – would authorize a study to assess the designation of a National Heritage Area for a landscape rich in cultural and historic resources and holding significant environmental importance for Virginia, North Carolina, and beyond.

On the eve of the unofficial start to the summer travel season, Representatives Darin LaHood (R-IL) and Grace Napolitano (D-CA) reintroduced legislation (H.R. 3600) on May 28 that would designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. This bill provides an opportunity to secure preservation and protection for Route 66, the most culturally celebrated and internationally recognized stretch of highway in America. You can share your support for this iconic transportation corridor by adding your name to a petition with more than 64,000 signers who support the preservation of Route 66.  

Exterior of the United States Capitol Building with a water feature and flowers in the forground.
Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Future Administrative Action Awaits on Other Priorities 

While the legislative agenda has been jam packed with activity, so has the landscape of actions by the new Biden-Harris Administration, and the National Trust continues to engage and follow closely many of these issues.

On Jan. 20, President Biden issued an executive order directing the Secretary of the Interior to review the revocation of the Bears Ears National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. While the executive order included a 60-day review deadline, the initial recommendation deadline was extended due to the confirmation of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and her commitment to visiting Utah.

In the meantime, because of the executive order, and with the consent of the National Trust and other litigating parties, the lawsuit challenging the revocation of Bears Ears National Monument has been temporarily put on hold.

The National Trust and our many partners continue to communicate our support for restoring the national monument and restarting the monument management planning process to ensure that the area is adequately protected. The National Trust will continue to be deeply engaged not only to protect Bears Ears, but also to maintain the integrity of the Antiquities Act

Included in recent activities by the National Park Service is the special resource study work for the Ocmulgee River Corridor. The March 2019 enactment of the most significant public lands package in more than a decade included legislation expanding and redesignating the Ocmulgee National Monument. The resulting special resource study process reached a new milestone with the opening of a public comment period earlier this year. The National Trust submitted comments regarding the rich history of an approximately 50-mile river corridor with archaeological resources dating from the Paleoindian Period through World War II and extensive Native American resources, such as Mississippian mound sites. We will share updates when they become available.

As the National Trust and our partners continue to advocate for these priorities, we thank you for your continued engagement and encourage you to take advantage of our free advocacy resources on many of these topics. To stay current as these bills and issues move forward, please subscribe to the government relations advocacy newsletter. 

Pam Bowman is the senior director of public lands policy in the government relations department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.