What the Dingell Act Means for Public Lands and Outdoor Recreation

Yesterday, March 12, 2019, President Donald Trump signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, or the Dingell Act for short. The Dingell Act has received widespread bipartisan support and will have varied and far-reaching effects on our public lands. With all of these positive changes, what can we expect for our public lands?

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The Dingell Act and What it means for public lands and outdoor recreationYesterday, March 12, 2019, President Donald Trump signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, or the Dingell Act for short — arguably the most consequential, far-reaching public lands legislation passed since the 70s.

Conservation and public lands management hasn’t taken a huge priority in the current administration, so this might seem like a strange move for the resource extraction favoring President, but the Dingell Act has received widespread bipartisan support. Introduced as S.47, or the Natural Resources Management Act, on 1/08/2019, the Senate passed it 92-8 on 2/12/2019, and the the House followed, 363-62, on 2/26/2019.

Protecting America’s public lands seems to be the one thing that many of us agree on. I’ve often remarked that sportsmen — hunters and anglers — share many of the same conservation goals as the crunchy-granola tree huggers. The two groups just have a hard time getting together. As someone who belongs in both groups, it’s easy for me to see why both liberals and conservatives would come together to support this bill; it truly does benefit everyone!

What’s in the Dingell Act

So what does the wide-reaching Dingell Act mean for American public lands and outdoor recreation?

Good things. A hell of a lot of good things. The summary text of the Act reads as follows;

This bill sets forth provisions regarding various programs, projects, activities, and studies for the management and conservation of natural resources on federal lands.

Specifically, the bill addresses, among other matters

  • land conveyances, exchanges, acquisitions, withdrawals, and transfers;
  • national parks, monuments, memorials, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, historic and heritage sites, and other conservation and recreation areas;
  • wildlife conservation;
  • helium extraction;
  • small miner waivers of claim maintenance fees;
  • wildland fire operations;
  • the release of certain federal reversionary land interests;
  • boundary adjustments;
  • the Denali National Park and Preserve natural gas pipeline;
  • fees for medical services in units of the National Park System;
  • funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund;
  • recreational activities on federal or nonfederal lands;
  • a national volcano early warning and monitoring system;
  • federal reclamation projects; and
  • search-and recovery-missions.

In addition, the bill reauthorizes the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Historic Preservation Program and the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s only the summary. This law truly is that sweeping — we’re talking 170 provisions. I won’t dive into EVERYTHING this bill covers, but let’s talk about some of the important pieces of the Dingell Act.

The Dingell Act permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund

The LWCF, originally enacted in 1965, takes a percentage of income from offshore energy and reinvests it into a number of American public lands programs. Until the program lapsed in 2018, the LCWF provided funding for efforts to conserve and protect federal lands and waters, as well as provide access for outdoor recreation.

Waterfront aided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Dingell Act adds more certainty to the organizations that rely on LWCF funding to do their work. This is a big win for public lands and the people that care about and use them. It’s not perfect, however — the permanent re-authorization guarantees funding, but not a certain percentage or dollar amount. That means that while we can count on the LCWF receiving annual funding, we don’t necessarily know how much. Congress will negotiate the level of funding during yearly appropriations which could leave funding amounts up in the air, but this is still a huge win.

The law creates historic protections in Utah

Utah, known for its public lands and outdoor recreation, has a strange way of showing its appreciation. The state government and federal representatives have favored deals with resource extractors even to the detriment of the state’s incredible public lands — even though outdoor recreation brings more money to the state and creates more jobs than mining and energy extraction.

The Dingell Act will protect the iconic Utah landscape

The Dingell Act protects tons of land in Utah from development and resource extraction, instead promoting outdoor recreation such as hiking, mountain biking, and climbing. The law designates 700,000 acres of new wilderness, 63 miles of the Green River as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and 300,000 acres of recreation area —connecting the National Parks with Utah’s other public lands.

Speaking of Wild and Scenic Rivers…

Utah isn’t the only spot with new Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Dingell Act designated over 600 miles of waterways. This includes:

  • 52.8 miles of the Nashua River and its tributaries in New Hampshire and Massachusetts
  • 256 miles of the Molalla and Elk Rivers and Rogue River tributaries in Oregon
  • 110 miles of rivers in the Wood-Pawcatuk watershed in Rhode Island and Connecticut
  • 77.2 miles of rivers in California; part of the California Desert Protection Act
  • 200 miles of rivers in Oregon, as protection of steelhead and salmon habitat

The Dingell Act designated over 600 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers

This is great for those who like to recreate on the water, but beyond that it helps preserve clean waterways, free from pollution and contamination. This protects our watersheds, and as an extension, helps provide cleaner water for all.

The Dingell Act protects National Parks from mining

Some people are surprised when I tell them that I’m not always opposed to resource extraction on public lands. But that’s part of the purpose of some public land — think timber harvesting in National Forests, for example. I don’t support resource extraction in and around National Parks, however. It detracts from the mission of the NPS.

Thus, I’m pleased that the Dingell Act withdrew federal mineral rights from two areas bordering Yellowstone and North Cascades National Parks. Permanently. Meaning no more mining on lands adjacent to these parks, which jeopardized the environment and threatened the wildlife that resided there.

Yellowstone National Park

Of course, this doesn’t make that all National Parks safe from nearby mining, but it does establish a precedent for prioritizing the interests of the public over the interests of resource extraction companies.

The Dingell Act paves the way for new Parks

Though the new law doesn’t create any new National Parks, it did add three new National Monuments (which are National Park Units, managed by the NPS). These monuments, all historic sites, include two Civil War battlefields and the home of civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers.

Further, the Dingell Act creates the possibility of adding more historic sites to our National Park system. Examples include a Japanese-American internment camp, the childhood homes of former presidents, and a historic train station. While the new law doesn’t mean that these sites will become monuments, it supports the research and study of adding new sites.

Additionally, the act expands eight National Parks and historic sites to include surrounding areas with historical significance or noteworthy natural beauty. Some of the expansions include areas already purchased for the parks, and preexisting public lands, but also new expansions which include another Civil War battlefield.

The Dingell Act creates new Wilderness Areas

Wilderness Areas provide us the ability to interact with undisturbed nature. These areas remain pristine, primal, and untouched by modernity. Despite the common misconception that we can’t make use of these area, they actually provide amazing opportunities for outdoor recreation, and we need as much of these wilderness areas as we can get.

Hiking into the John Muir Wilderness Area

Fortunately the Dingell Act created new Wilderness Areas, including the following:

  • The 13,240 acre Cerro Del Yuta Wilderness in New Mexico.
  • The 8,120 acre  Rio San Antonio Wilderness in New Mexico.
  • Additional 240,000 acres of Wilderness in New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
  • The aforementioned 750,000 acres of Wilderness in Utah.

For those of you keeping track, that’s over one million acres of new Wilderness Area to explore.

The law creates New National Heritage Areas

National Heritage Areas combine natural, cultural, and historic resources to support nationally important landscapes. These differ from Parks and Monuments, because people live and work within these landscapes — National Heritage Areas are communities that pair National heritage with local interests. These collaborations create local jobs and boost tourism — meaning a net positive.

South Park National Heritage Area
Photo by Jeffrey Beall, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Dingell Act will add sites in Maryland, Washington, and West Virginia, as well as expanding the Lincoln National Heritage Area in my home state of Illinois, and will look into adding another National Heritage Area in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

This just scratches the surface

There’s tons more in the Dingell Act, from creating a unified plan for conservation and recreation in California’s desert, re-authorizes the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program through 2022, establishes a Conservation Service Corp in which youth and veterans can work together to better our public lands, opens federal lands to hunting and fishing, and much more.

You can read it in full if you like; at 260 pages, it’s a big read. Without a doubt, some of these provisions will be tried and tested, but after my own recent harsh criticism of how we treat our public lands, it’s incredibly refreshing to see how we can rally behind landmark public lands legislation.

What’s next?

The President just signed the Dingell Act into law, so there’s still a lot of work to do — access to public lands doesn’t just spring up overnight. We can expect some growing pains here and there, but considering the overwhelming bipartisan support of this legislation, I hope that we won’t see much political jockeying over the included provisions.

Only time will tell for sure. We still have a lot of work to do, but for now we also have a lot to celebrate.

Looking out over the Grand Canyon
The future is looking brighter for our public lands, thanks to the Dingell Act.


2 thoughts on “What the Dingell Act Means for Public Lands and Outdoor Recreation

  1. This Act actually ruined a big section of the Imperial Valley in southern California. We already have numerous WILDERNESS area down here already. Adding another big chunk of our desert is ridiculous!!!! As time goes on, we keep getting squeezed into smaller and smaller areas to hunt or just access. I seriously DOUBT that ANYONE in congress has ever been down here and therefore has NO IDEA what it’s like here!

    1. I’m sorry that in this instance it didn’t work out perfectly. Obviously I’m not boots on the ground in CA, but I can understand sportsmen being unhappy about having less land open to hunting.

      That said, having the desert converted to Wilderness Area shouldn’t necessarily remove access for other forms of outdoor recreation like hiking or camping.

      While I empathize with your frustration, part of the reason desert areas in California were set aside was for the protection of endangered species habitat and desert water resources from mining and other resource extraction. Protecting those water resources is important. Combine that with fragile desert habitats, and essentially, had the area not been turned into a wilderness area, there wasn’t going to be much to hunt there in the long term anyway.

      Wilderness resource management is always a tenuous balance, and though I support thoughtful resource extraction, hunting, and forest management, we also need to look at long term strategies for ensuring that the wild places that we love stick around for as long as possible.

      We all have to find ways to share and use this land together. It’s never going to be perfect, and I’m sincere when I say that it sucks that sportsmen have lost a place where they could hunt. That said, by my estimates there are still over 6.5 million acres of hunting accessible public lands in CA. That doesn’t include state land or private land that allows hunting — that doesn’t make up for the loss of a local area to a local sportsman, but we’re all doing our best to keep the great outdoors as great as possible for as many people as possible.

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