House Sends Bipartisan Federal Lands Bill to Oval Office

Two visitors to Blue Mesa in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park are pictured shortly before it was closed due to Covid-19. (Courthouse News photo/Bill Girdner)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan conservation bill on Wednesday that dramatically boosts funding for national parks preservation and work on backlogged federal lands projects.

Hailed by environmental groups as a significant conservation accomplishment, the bill passed the House 301-107 on Wednesday afternoon. It passed the Senate in June and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the legislation after urging its passage on Twitter shortly before Wednesday’s vote.

A relatively rare bipartisan accomplishment in a bitterly divided Congress, the Great American Outdoors Act received widespread support from conservation and environmental groups.

“The Great American Outdoors Act — I love the title — takes the next step in our pro-conservation agenda as it boldly protects or country’s natural and cultural heritage for our children, our grandchildren and generations to come,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor Wednesday.

The bill permanently and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an account set up in 1964 to cover the cost of conservation projects on public lands across the country. Under federal law, the fund can receive up to $900 million per year, but Congress has consistently appropriated less than that amount through the years.

This underfunding has built up a significant backlog of conservation projects in national parks and other public lands. The backlog stood at more than $11.9 billion in 2019, according to the National Park Service, including unfinished work on 25,000 buildings and more than 26,000 miles of roads and trails.

Proponents of the legislation in Congress and conservation advocates hailed the $900 million in annual funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund as critical to allowing people to enjoy the nation’s wild spaces and protecting the environment.

“We are judged on what we choose to pass on and today we have an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to preserving these lands for the future and for future generations,” Representative Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, said on the House floor before the vote Wednesday.

Pushed in the GOP-controlled Senate by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, the bill also creates a new fund setting aside $9.5 billion over five years to make certain priority repairs.  

Environmental groups broadly supported the legislation, saying in addition to the conservation benefits, the money will also create jobs as long-stalled maintenance projects get underway.

“It’s an investment in jobs that will protect and maintain our public lands and waters — something that is all the more urgent as communities everywhere experience fallout from the climate crisis,” Kabir Green, the director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Supporting wildlife management and investing in our forests enhances biodiversity and will help sequester some of the carbon that fuels climate change.”

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