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Bruce Cain on the Value of Public Lands

In March, President Donald Trump signed into law the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, a sweeping public lands package that secures protections for more than 2.5 million acres–a combined area more than twice the size of Rhode Island–and over 500 miles of wild rivers. The law permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund–a conservation program that draws primarily from federal offshore oil and gas lease revenues.  But it says nothing about how much money should go into the fund. While approved to distribute up to $900 million annually, the fund has received much less than that in recent years, and Trump has proposed defunding it drastically.

Stanford political scientist Bruce Cain discussed the new law’s implications and prospects for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act will expand several protected natural areas, including Joshua Tree National Park (pictured) in Southern California. (Photo credit: BRAD SUTTON / NPS)

Why did the the Natural Resources Management Act receive overwhelming support? Had the yea votes been fewer, would President Trump have been likely to veto the bill?

Cain: The wide vote margin reflects the omnibus nature of this bill.  It has something for environmentalists, developers, African-Americans and off-road vehicle riders--to name a few winners. With numerous sponsors and co-sponsors in the Senate it was built to survive any Presidential whim.

Is there anything particularly surprising or unusual about the act’s provisions?

Cain: This is old style log-roll politics that seemed to go out of style in the current era of polarization. The cheers you hear in the background are from political scientists and Congress scholars around the country. 

What are the law’s implications for conservation and wildfire management in the Western U.S. and elsewhere?

Cain: That progress requires compromise. To get more wilderness areas environmentalists have to concede some needed land exchanges and conveyances for development purposes–an airport expansion in South Dakota, for example–and designated areas of off-road vehicle recreation.

Why was the act fast-tracked under an expedited legislative process? Is there anything else worth noting about the process by which it came into law?

Cain: It is hard to get closure on a big omnibus bill like this since there is always someone who feels shortchanged or had another idea of what should be included in the legislation. Expedited processes limit this kind of last minute bargaining.

What, if any, precedent, does the new law set for future conservation efforts? How does it compare with other land-protection legislation in American history?

Cain: This kind of wheeling and dealing was the kind of legislation that Phil Burton excelled in, cutting agreements across party lines and making possible the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for instance. 

What kind of economic impact will the law–and its provisions for hunters, mountain bikers and others–have on the outdoor recreation industry?

Cain: Aside from the off-road vehicle provisions, hunters and fishers expanded their access to Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service land. Recreation is emerging as a powerful political force in many Western states, rivaling and sometimes clashing with the extractive industries. Along with the growth of cities and suburbs, the rural interior West is becoming more politically complex. 

Cain is the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences, the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Rob Jordan, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 721-1881, rjordan [at]

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The Bill Lane Center announces recipients of the 2022-2023 Western Media Fellowship, which provides support for journalists illuminating critical issues about the American West.