Senate Passes Public Lands Bill in Rare Show of Bipartisanship

Visitors watch as Old Faithful erupts at Yellowstone National Park on May 18, 2020, the day the park partially reopened after a two-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate voted 73-25 Wednesday to approve bipartisan legislation that permanently vests $900 million annually into a fund preserving national parks and pours $9.5 billion over the next five years into federal lands maintenance long backlogged from years of neglect.

The Senate bill, known as the Great American Outdoors Act, was first introduced in March by Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana.

The Covid-19 pandemic put it on the back burner for weeks, though passage was all but assured since it enjoyed widespread support among more than 60 Democratic and Republican senators ahead of the vote.

The next step is approval by the House before going to the desk of President Donald Trump, who has also expressed support for the bill and is expected to sign it.

Over 200 House lawmakers have backed the bill, so it is expected to be approved swiftly in that chamber.

For years, environmentalists and conservationists have called on legislators to invest more into the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in 1965 by Congress and housed in the U.S. Treasury Department. The fund maintains U.S. parks and natural resources like forests and waterways through royalties paid by oil and gas companies drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.

The promise of a guaranteed $900 million per year is significant. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service published last June, legislators have only infused the fund with a fraction of that sum annually over the last 12 years. On average, investment in that period ranged from about $250 million to $400 million. Since the inception of the Land and Water Conservation Act over five decades ago, the $900 million annual maximum has only been vested twice.

The lack of consistency has created a billowing backlog where aging park facilities, visitor centers, trails, bridges, camp and historic sites, battlefields and memorials have been neglected or left in varying states of disrepair. This backlog is known in the National Park Service as “deferred maintenance.” Last year alone, the price tag for that maintenance hovered around $11.9 billion. Estimates for 2020 have not yet been compiled, an NPS spokesperson said. 

“America’s hundreds of millions of acres of public lands are the result of hundreds of years of exploration and conservation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Today, the Senate will act to ensure this inheritance will stand the test of time for generations of Americans yet to come.”

Earlier this month, six former Interior Department secretaries threw their weight behind the bill in a letter to House and Senate leadership. By sustaining federal lands as proposed, the annual revenue the federal government rakes in — nearly $778 billion in outdoor recreation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis — is better protected. That protection also extends to the 5.2 million jobs the national parks industry supports. 

A few Republican lawmakers expressed early opposition to the bill, including Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy. During debate on the legislation last week, Cassidy, who chairs the Senate Energy subcommittee, criticized it as inequitable, noting that at least half of the revenue generated from oil and gas production will flow to just a handful of states.

Over 850 national and local environmental groups, from the Nature Conservancy to the Evangelical Environment Network, endorsed the law in a letter to lawmakers last month saying that it will strongly secure “vital resources while preserving water quantity and quality.”

But other groups, including roughly 50 agricultural associations like the Public Lands Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Sheep Industry Association, have criticized the bill as an “irresponsible” federal land grab obscured by conservation-friendly buzzwords. 

Specifically, the agricultural groups take issue with a mandate in the bill that requires at least 40% of the $900 million in revenues to be used to purchase new lands or waters for the U.S. government.

“The federal government already owns more than 640 million acres, controlling a vast majority of the American West. More federal ownership is irresponsible and in some places it will soon be impossible. In Nevada, federal agencies currently own more than 85 percent of the landscape, leaving precious little to support private enterprise,” the groups wrote in a June 8 letter to Senate leadership.

Kabir Green, senior advocate for lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Courthouse News in an email that while the council obviously opposes oil and gas drilling, money going into the conservation fund is well spent.

“As long as existing oil and gas leases are operating, directing fees to these vital conservation purposes make sense,” Green said.

%d bloggers like this: