Congressional mandates unfulfilled by Trump’s Interior Department

‘They ignored congressional intent,’ said a public-lands advocate. ‘They ignored the law.’

David Bernhardt testifies at a Senate appropriations hearing in May 2019, while serving as Interior secretary.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
David Bernhardt testifies at a Senate appropriations hearing in May 2019, while serving as Interior secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 2, 2021 at 6:00am

Julie Waterman was not pleased with what she called a “parting gift” from David Bernhardt, whose job as Interior secretary under Donald Trump was about to end.

The night before President Joe Biden was sworn in, Bernhardt announced that the department had moved $150 million set aside for an urban parks program to a grant program for wetlands projects, wildlife habitat, flood mitigation and more.

“That was a surprise to us,” said Waterman, advocacy director for City Parks Alliance. “These are funds that Congress thought they were giving to an urban program for poor children.”

Instead of sending the money to the urban parks program, Interior started a new bidding process, placing money bound for urban areas at risk unless the Biden administration or Congress restores it. “It opens up a whole new battle,” Waterman said.

Bernhardt’s move in the final hours of the Trump administration was not an aberration but rather the last in a series of steps by an Interior Department that did not always hew to legislative details or congressional direction, according to advocates and others who follow the department’s spending and congressional interactions. 

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Bill Lee, of The Trust for Public Land, was blunt about the transfer of the urban parks funding. “They ignored congressional intent,” he said. “They ignored the law.”

Biden’s nominee for Interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., may face questions at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about how the department will respond to her predecessor’s actions.  

Bernhardt’s choice to move money set aside for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership, used to update city parks or establish new ones, followed steps Interior took to shift federal dollars that Congress had appropriated to the department from one program to another, disregarding the direction of lawmakers, who control and approve the federal budget.

In 2018, over congressional objections, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke attempted to eliminate a program for children called “Every Kid in a Park.” 

Then there are the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, a network of partnerships among federal agencies, states, researchers and tribes to study environmental preservation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of Interior, oversees those 22 partnerships. The Trump administration tried “repeatedly to zero out” the LCC program, despite bipartisan support from Congress, said Brent Keith, a senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy.

“It’s a relatively small amount of money, about $12.5 million,” Keith said, adding that Zinke and Bernhardt both moved money from LCCs. 

Unanswered questions

“He and Bernhardt both began taking this money” and moving it to other programs, Keith said. “Despite repeated requests from Congress in report language [for information] to let them know what’s going on with the LCC, to let them know what’s happening, there was sort of a dearth of information coming from the [FWS] and from Interior.”

While the Trump White House proposed cuts to funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in its first three budgets, Senate Republicans campaigned last year on a public lands bill to permanently fund it with $900 million annually and allocate $9.5 billion over five years to Interior. 

Joel Pannell, associate director for Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All Campaign, recalled meeting staffers for then-Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who said the lands bill was a priority for then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last year. 

Now a law, it provides money for two main categories: backlogged maintenance projects at Interior sites and LWCF projects.

But the Senate Appropriations Committee, then under Republican control, complained last year that Interior still missed deadlines to implement the law. 

“The Committee is disappointed by the lack of specific bureau and project-level information contained in the submissions and believes additional details regarding proposed projects are necessary,” the panel said in a note about the department’s work on the law that was released Nov. 10 along with spending proposals. 

On the LWCF sites, the committee told Interior it missed a 90-day deadline to provide a list of land acquisition targets, a requirement of the law that made funding permanent. So the committee submitted its own projects instead.

Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy firms, said Bernhardt’s move in January to defund the urban parks program was a surprise. 

“This is one way to help on the environmental justice issue,” said Milito, calling the parks program a “really great story” for the offshore industry. The day after Biden was inaugurated, his group urged Congress to reinstate the funding for the urban parks program, which was established in 2014 and is funded through the LWCF. That pool of money, in turn, is funded through revenue from fossil fuel extraction, including oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico.

Reviewing actions

Biden administration Interior spokesman Tyler Cherry said by email that the department wants to bolster the urban parks program.

“The Interior Department is reviewing the actions taken by the Trump Administration [on the week of Jan. 20] to change the criteria for competitive grants to states known as the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership program process under the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Cherry said. “We will take any steps necessary to ensure that the ORLP program is not only supported but strengthened in support of President Biden’s vision of serving all communities.”

Last week, 27 House Democrats pressed Biden in a letter to restore that funding.

“The attack on urban parks funding comes at a time when we need to be making additional stimulus investments in our urban parks to create jobs and provide outdoor access to communities of color,” Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., said in an email. 

Barragán and Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Interior, are crafting legislation they plan to introduce in mid-February that would fund the program with $500 million. 

It would be a “one-time stimulus to help address the fiscal impact to local parks budgets during COVID-19, and to address the need for outdoor recreational opportunities, which can be a safe outlet that families have during quarantine,” said Ron Eckstein, a Barragán spokesman.

Lee, of The Trust for Public Land, said Congress recognized in the late 1990s that money from LWCF, a program that had existed for decades by that point, was not flowing substantially to cities.

One hundred million Americans “do not have a park within a 10-minute walk from home,” and “most” of America’s largest 100 cities have closed features that place people in proximity, like basketball courts and playgrounds, since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent report by the trust’s researchers.

Those closures coincided with a surge in interest during the pandemic. “We’ve really seen a renewed appreciation for local parks,” Lee said.

Pannell said COVID-19 threw a spotlight on long-standing discrimination through physical space. 

“The history of land use has always been discriminatory against” Black and brown people, he said. “It’s always been important,” he continued. “The inequity has been proven to be even more critical during COVID.”

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