The Senate voted 73-25 Wednesday to pass a historic public lands package, a victory for conservation groups and two GOP lawmakers in competitive reelection races.
Conservation groups backing the public lands package will now turn their attention to the House to raise support and push for quick passage.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to bring it to a floor vote before the July 4 break, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Even as Senate supporters cheered the bipartisan support for the outdoors package, they acknowledge that more work will remain to be done on America’s public lands, especially a backlog of maintenance, but say the legislation moving through a previously House-passed tax bill is significant and a model for how Republicans and Democrats can work on environmental protections.
The public lands portion of the bill would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program funded mainly through private sector profits from offshore drilling to pay for federal land acquisition and to help state and local authorities purchase and develop outdoor recreation facilities.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also would authorize $9.5 billion to help clear part of the Interior Department’s maintenance backlog, part of it at the National Park Service. Passage of the bill may help Gardner and another GOP senator and cosponsor, Steve Daines of Montana, find wider support in close reelection races.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also would approve $9.5 billion to help clear part of the Interior Department’s maintenance backlog, part of it at the National Park Service.
Bill backers have defeated attempts by GOP opponents from oil-producing states to make changes to the bill, including to increase the share of federal revenue from offshore drilling that goes to coastal states, to pay for the bill with increased visa fees for foreign visitors, and to prohibit the government from making land acquisitions using LWCF funds without approval from the state where the land is located.
The bill is supported by more than 850 conservation groups.
“What we’ve been arguing is that public lands are bipartisan and that they unite us and they bring us together, literally, to heal and to recreate, and also to create jobs, and we are thrilled that this is happening, and we can actually focus on our work better,” said Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy, told CQ Roll Call. “Instead of having to make sure that there's a pittance of money for this, we're going to actually have a reliable funding source.”
Money in the bank
Cors said previous public lands deals have fallen through as landowners were not certain the government would have the money to meet its end of the deal because of shortages in the LWCF.
The program has rarely been funded at the $900 million that Congress intended since its inception in 1965, an issue that backers say will be solved with the latest legislative action.
The bill also would help address part of the estimated $20 billion in deferred maintenance costs at the Interior Department. Nearly $12 billion of that backlog is at the National Park Service. The bill would make available $9.5 billion for the delayed maintenance.
“In terms of the broader scope of things, it doesn't fix everything, but it takes a significant chunk of the deferred maintenance backlog and addresses it, and fully funding LWCF is huge,” said Quillan Robinson, government affairs director at the conservative youth-driven American Conservation Coalition. “It's hardly case closed in terms of our public lands and national parks, but I think this is really a conservation goal of a generation.”
Robinson said he’s optimistic the bill with “massive jobs potential” will pass in the Senate and the House and will be signed by the president.
“I'm so excited about the fact that you had Democrats and Republicans coming together to protect the environment; that's what we need more of,” he said.
While acknowledging that Gardner’s bill will bite off a chunk of the national parks deferred maintenance costs, Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said she is hopeful that a transportation bill in the House will help pay for some of the transportation-related maintenance needs at the country’s national parks.
The bill sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. Defazio- D-Ore., will be marked up by the committee Wednesday through a video conference.
Still, Brengel said, Gardner’s bill would be a “massive investment” in the nation’s public lands and national parks by not only protecting and making available more outdoor spaces but also preserving historic sites.
Asked whether they will be pushing for separate legislation to clear the rest of Interior’s maintenance backlog, conservationists seemed reluctant to appear greedy before the current bill in the Senate has passed and become law.
“I’m going to relax after this,” Cors said. “I’m going to enjoy a piece of public lands.” Then he will be back up to push for other conservation priorities.