Senate Committee Considers Legislation to Conserve Public Lands and Waters

On June 12, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining held a legislative hearing which included the consideration of six bills supported by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Members of BHA have advocated for these bills which together would permanently conserve nearly 3 million acres of public lands and 3,600 miles of rivers and streams, as well as improve publicly available data for accessing federal waters. These priority landscapes contain valuable fish and wildlife habitat ranging from the wild and free flowing Yellowstone River, home to native cutthroat trout, to desert bighorn sheep range in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. 

Modernizing Access to Our Public (MAP)Waters Act (S. 3123) - Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) 

This legislation would build on the success of the Modernizing Access to Our Public (MAP)Land Act, passed into law in 2022, by directing federal agencies to make digitally available water and fishing access and recreational use information on waterways managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. Hunters and anglers, who rely on opportunities provided by public waters for access, will benefit greatly from digitizing and making readily accessible information such as watercraft restrictions, fishing regulations, and the geographic boundaries those are associated with. With access being the number one obstacle cited by sportsmen and women, this legislation will help to lower the barrier for the enjoyment of our public waters for millions of Americans. 

A companion bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6127) led by Rep. Blake Moore (R-UT) received a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee in November of last year. 

Montana Headwaters Legacy Act (S. 3346) - Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) 

This legislation would designate 384 miles of segments of the Gallatin, Madison, and Smith Rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, nearly doubling Montana’s protected river segments, which currently represent less than one percent of state’s waterways. These legendary Montana rivers provide remarkable opportunities for anglers to pursue native and wild trout. These additions to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System would mean that public access would continue while ensuring that these waterways remain undammed, wild, clean, and free flowing forever.

Truckee Meadows Public Land Management Act (S. 3593)- Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) 

This legislation, among other provisions, would conserve approximately 900,000 acres of public lands in Washoe County, Nevada through the designation of five new Wilderness Areas spanning 223,039 acres, establishing five new National Conservation Areas encompassing 551,427 acres, and withdrawing eight areas from mineral development totaling 173,919 acres. The wilderness designations include approximately 112,000 acres within the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, as is consistent with the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan. These landscapes provide habitat for greater sage-grouse, pronghorn, mule deer, and bighorn sheep.  

Sarvis Creek Wilderness Completion Act (S. 3985) - Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) 

This legislation would expand the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area in the Routt National Forest by 6,817 acres. This legislation would conserve sub-alpine habitat in the Harrison and Green Creek watersheds, tributaries to the Yampa River home to native and wild trout. This landscape includes important winter range and habitat for calving elk, as well as habitat for mule deer, black bears, and mountain lions.  

A companion bill in the House of Representatives is also led by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO). 

River Democracy Act (S. 4449) - Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) 

This legislation would designate 3,215 miles under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act following a multi-year locally driven nomination process across Oregon. The largest proposed addition in history to the National Wild and Scenic River System, it would more than double these protected waterways in Oregon. Currently less than two percent of the state’s waterways are designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Healthy rivers and streams are the foundation for much of the fish and wildlife habitat that sportsmen and women in Oregon depend on.

Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act (S. 4457) - Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) 

This legislation, among other provisions, would conserve approximately 2 million acres of public lands in Clark County, Nevada through the expansion of five Wilderness Areas and the designation of six new Wilderness Areas spanning a total of 1.6 million acres, establishing nine Special Management Areas encompassing 359,000 acres, and the expansion of two National Conservation Areas by 65,000 acres. Chief among the proposed wilderness is the designation of the nearly 1.3-million-acre Southern Paiute Wilderness Area within the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, critical to conserving the largest intact habitat for desert bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert and continuing public access for hunters as military operations in the refuge continue to expand. 

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to have one final business meeting to vote on these, and other public lands bills, before the conclusion of the 118th Congress. BHA continues to advocate for the creation of a public lands package to advance longstanding conservation priorities through Congress, which may materialize before the end of this year. Such a package may include these bills as well as other legislation supported by BHA that was considered by the committee in May and December of last year. 

About Kaden McArthur

A western hunter and angler, my passion for wild places and wildlife brought me to Washington, DC to work on conservation policy.