The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would permanently fund a popular, bipartisan conservation program and provide up to $9.5 billion over the next five years to repair national parks and public lands.
Lawmakers touted the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422) as the most significant conservation legislation in at least 50 years. It passed the Senate 73-25.
The bill would make funding mandatory at $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, meaning the program would no longer be subject to the annual appropriations process.
It also would create a new trust fund from unallocated energy revenues to address the nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog in America’s most treasured public places.
“It’s completely bipartisan, which is one of the best parts,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said in an interview Tuesday on the legislation.
‘Something That Will Last’
Republican and Democratic supporters have touted the bill as a significant job creator because of the shovel-ready conservation and infrastructure projects it will fund.
King worked closely with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) on the parks title of the legislation. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have been strong advocates for the conservation fund, shepherding that part of the package.
Lawmakers “are doing something that will last” and that generations of people will enjoy, King said. “It’s not political credit, it’s not a big political payoff; it’s the right thing to do for the people,” he said.
Action on the bill now moves to the House, where it’s possible the lower chamber could schedule a vote on it before the July 4 recess. Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) is sponsoring the bipartisan companion bill (H.R. 7092). It’s likely the House will take up the Senate-passed measure, H.R. 1957, the legislative vehicle for the Great American Outdoors Act.
Gardner, Portman, and Manchin said they’d talked to House members recently, urging the lower chamber to quickly take up the bill and pass it “clean,” or without substantial changes.
LWCF pays for federal land acquisition as well as parks, wildlife refuges and other conservation projects across the country. President Donald Trump has said he will sign the conservation package into law.
The program funds are shared among the federal and state governments, at 40% each, with a flexible 20% that can be used for other related projects, such as deferred maintenance.
The deferred maintenance backlog portion would be split up among five land agencies, with the lion’s share, or 70%, going to the National Park Service.
Heinrich said during Wednesday’s call that while LWCF goes toward buying land in “more remote” places, it’s the primary mechanism for states and localities to build city parks and ball fields in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The Democrat said he was working on a mapping project in New Mexico to “figure out how we focus our efforts in communities and create parks in places where kids don’t have that access right now.”
‘Not Flashy’ But Critical
A wide spectrum of more than 850 outside groups, from the National Parks Conservation Association to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supports the Great American Outdoors Act.
Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, said “the importance of the funding” for LWCF and the park maintenance backlog can’t be overstated. “This upkeep, while not flashy, is a critical part of the stewardship of our public lands,” he said.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers president and CEO Land Tawney said the group’s “amazing grassroots leaders, dedicated volunteers and rank-and-file hunters and anglers can lay claim to this victory.”
But a coalition of conservative groups led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Energy Alliance said the LWCF mandatory funding would bypass the regular appropriations process and add to the federal government’s already vast real estate portfolio.
Election Year Politics
Gardner and Daines face tough re-election campaigns, and Republicans are hoping the Great American Outdoors Act gives the senators a boost with voters. The two Westerners earlier this year met with Trump, who had previously called for cuts to LWCF, to convince him to back the conservation legislation.
“This is the culmination of years and years of work to get to this point today,” Daines said.
Senate Democrats, all of whom voted for the Great American Outdoors Act on Wednesday, have said the legislation is good policy regardless of the politics behind it.
“The best politics is good government,” Manchin said. “And when something like this happens, it’s good politics for everybody.”
Mandatory Spending Critique
Adding another billion dollars of mandatory spending for LWCF “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in an interview last month discussing the conservation package.
Bishop is the lead sponsor the “Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act,” (H.R. 1225) the deferred maintenance backlog bill in the House that was combined with the LWCF funding measure.
He opposes mandatory funding for LWCF, but he supported the permanent authorization of the program Congress approved in the 2019 public lands package.
Offshore oil and gas revenues fund the popular, bipartisan program, but LWCF has only been fully funded twice since its creation in 1965. Congress appropriated $495 million for it in fiscal 2020, the most money allocated for the program in 15 years.
Alexander of Tennessee, who is an appropriator, told reporters Wednesday that “we don’t know” yet whether LWCF will begin receiving $900 million in fiscal 2021, if the bill is enacted. “It depends on the effective date of the appropriations bills and the effective date of this law.”