Turning 1,000 cups of coffee into political inevitability A veteran public land advocate's perspective on the 2019 Natural Resources Management Act

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.

The biggest conservation bill in more than a decade? Huge bipartisan majorities? What happened?


High-functioning collaboration and major accomplishments aren't what Congress is known for right now. And so, the recently passed Natural Resources Management Act caught many observers by surprise. The scale of the bill is significant: 170 individual provisions designated 1.3 million acres of new wilderness areas in four states; established permanent protections for significant places in Montana and Washington state; protected rivers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon; created new national monuments in Mississippi and Kentucky; and—as they say—much, much more. Every piece had its own story, told by people from all walks of life, from all political and business perspectives.

This bill not only protected over one million acres of wilderness, it also permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is a pretty big deal. Created in the 1960s, the LWCF uses offshore oil and gas royalties to pay for conservation programs. It is one of those rare federal programs that has a huge impact and broad bipartisan support. Despite this, Congress has had a habit of reauthorizing it for only a few years at a time, creating unnecessary uncertainty for the program. Congress will still need to appropriate the funds regularly, but this permanent authorization will make the program stronger and more effective.

Photo of a hiker laying in a flower-filled meadow in the Methow Headwaters of Washington State.
The Methow Headwaters in Washington state. Photo courtesy of Methow Headwaters Campaign

Conservationists spend lifetimes fighting against bad ideas. Defensive campaigns are essential to prevent environmentally destructive projects and policies, and our community is really good at these kinds of efforts, because we have a lot of practice in sounding the alarm and getting all hands on deck.

Getting good things done is a whole different ballgame. Wilderness, for instance, always requires passing a law in Congress, and this requires support from local members of Congress, often in some of the toughest political turf in the American West. Earning that support means making lots of new friends, often on a very small scale, sitting around kitchen tables with mugs of coffee in hand.

In the Brainerd Foundation's grantmaking region, the Natural Resources Management Act provided important mining restrictions in the headwaters of Washington's Methow Valley and in the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. In Yellowstone country, businesses like Chico Hot Springs worked with influential valley residents, advocacy groups, farmers, and ranchers to reach across political divides and address a threat everyone recognized. In the Methow, experienced conservationists leveraged bipartisan relationships to demonstrate the universal support for this special place—a diverse crowd united to address mining threats. For virtually every provision of this massive bill, there was a local story, where relationships were stitched together, focused on who could get the job done and what was needed to get their support.

Well-run grassroots campaigns can bridge any political divide, and nearly every park and wilderness is proof.

Well-run grassroots campaigns can bridge any political divide, and nearly every park and wilderness is proof of this. I call it "creating political inevitability." For me, this is the goal of any proactive protection campaign, and in each piece of the just-passed public lands bill, advocates made it inevitable that their political and community leaders would be on board. As the package was assembled, each parochial part helped create the overwhelming support for the whole. Many members of Congress who voted to support the overall bill usually don't back big conservation efforts, but public land measures collaboratively created from the bottom up create powerful politics.

For funders of grassroots organizations, this work is tough because the relationship pieces can take years to develop and progress is hard to measure in the face of immediate, competing needs. This is especially true when, like now, defensive fights are many. Place-based campaigns, which tend to drag on, can be tough on advocacy groups, too; they can wear down staff and volunteers. And slowly built, hard-earned support can vanish in a flash, say when a supportive local leader is replaced.

Some call this work building bridges, but it's more than that. Conservationists actually have to cross the bridge and see the world through the eyes of a rural county commissioner, tribal leader, rancher, or timber executive. Ideally, you're able to bring others for a visit to your side, too, but real compromise isn't about convincing someone that you're right. It's about ensuring a win for everyone. This is what creates political inevitability, support that's often unexpected and uniquely powerful. This bill most certainly had scores of these win-wins built over many years.

Real compromise isn't about convincing someone that you're right. It's about ensuring a win for everyone.

Don't get me wrong. It's not all sunshine and roses. This public lands bill also included details that make me cringe. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a key leader for the package nationally, introduced a set of provisions—her price for Senate passage. These included a provision that could result in the divestment of certain National Wildlife Refuge System and Bureau of Land Management lands in Alaska. They say sausage and law making are both processes you shouldn't observe too closely. Legislation that becomes law almost always blends the bitter with the sweet. The successful wilderness bills that I've worked on have included compromises that caused me real pain that I still feel today. Some compromises nearly sunk our efforts, but they ultimately served to ensure the collaborative heft necessary to get the job done, resulting in permanent protection for truly special places.

Photo of a of a kayaker on a river in the Owyhee Canyonlands.
A kayaker basking in the beauty of Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands. Photo courtesy of Idaho Conservation League.

I'm reminded of a meeting just after the Bush-Gore election. In the final months of the Clinton administration, we ran a high-profile national monument campaign for Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands. We were trying to beat the opposition and we came very close. (No bridge building here.) But the election put the White House, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate in Republican hands. The Idaho governor's office and entire congressional delegation were also Republican. We were toast. An organizer for right-wing causes, Fred Grant, arguably in our darkest moment, reached out and said, "It's clear you're not going away. With these election results," he said smiling, "we believe it's safe to begin talking to you folks."

So began the Owyhee Initiative. A diverse set of people talked for eight long years. After endless meetings and cups of coffee, Fred Grant and I were sitting in the East Room of the White House as President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Not unlike the package that just passed, this was a legislative grab bag, pieces large and small from across the nation. Now ten years old, the bill created six new wilderness areas and designated 316 new miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in Idaho alone, the first Idaho designations in 29 years.

You win with endless pressure, endlessly applied. Brock Evans

One of the authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act, Howard Zahniser, once said, "Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration." It sure is. There are scores of local campaigns underway right now that could appear in future public lands bills. They are located everywhere citizens are willing to work hard for lands they love, implementing the strategy one of my mentors made clear to me decades ago: Brock Evans, then head lobbyist of the Sierra Club's D.C. office and now president of the Endangered Species Coalition, told me, "You win with endless pressure, endlessly applied." What sounded simple then, I quickly learned, was not simple at all. It became my life's work.

There is something special about seeing compromise work, seeing unlikely allies come together because of love of place. As scores of activists learned when this bill was signed into law, the inspiration remains and victory tastes as sweet as ever.

Rick Johnson has been the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League for twenty-four years. He has been advocating for public lands for almost four decades.