For the first time in nearly six years, Congress passed a major package of public lands and natural resource bills, which was signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 19, 2014. The package combined dozens of bills supported by Republicans and Democrats, some of which had been pending in Congress for up to a decade. The new law contains conservation measures designating wilderness and national parks as well as resource extraction projects, such as a major copper mine in Arizona. The new law also includes a number of land conveyances and exchanges, among a range of other provisions.
Public lands and natural resource bills are particularly important to members of Congress from rural and Western states. In many of these states, public land management, resource extraction, water resources, threatened and endangered species, and other matters are key concerns for state governments and their constituents. Lawmakers from these states often devote considerable time and attention to these matters in Congress, but congressional gridlock over the last decade has made it increasingly difficult to pass bills that used to be considered non-controversial. What has resulted is a backlog of public land and natural resource bills that are very important to home-state members, and fewer opportunities to get them signed into law.
Despite the partisanship and related challenges in Washington, D.C., Congress is still considering and able to pass legislation dealing with natural resources and public lands. Many members of Congress are hoping to get public lands bills enacted into law in 2015 and 2016. Given the busy legislative calendar and the large number of such bills, it is only a matter of time before members of Congress and stakeholders begin calling for another such legislative package. Items that could be included in such a package are Sen. Diane Feinstein's (D-Calif.) California Desert Protection Act and Sen. Jon Tester's (D-MT) Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, among others. The process remains challenging, however, so stakeholders interested in moving such lands bills should engage their allies in Congress early in 2015 to ensure that they have a viable strategy for successfully navigating their bill through the legislative process.