Senate Takes First Step in Advancing Two New Bills to Fund Our Public Lands

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Committee approves bills designed to breath life into some of America's favorite wild places.

In a move applauded by public lands advocates, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday pushed forward dual bipartisan bills, one to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and the other to address the maintenance backlog in U.S. national parks. However, it remains to be seen whether either bill will become law this year.

The committee voted 13–7 for the LWCF to receive $900 million in mandatory annual funding, while the Restore Our Parks Act (ROPA)—which aims to help pay off the nearly $12 billion park maintenance backlog—passed with a 15–5 vote.

While experts say it’s unlikely either piece of legislation will pass through the full Senate chamber by the end of the year, the outdoor industry and conservation groups will continue pressing for the passage of these bills by the end of 2020. Supporters say they are important for helping fund public lands and preserving natural resources.

ROPA, for instance, could provide $6.5 billion through 2023 toward the national park maintenance backlog—potentially covering more than half of the park’s existing needs.

The National Park Service’s maintenance backlog includes things like road repairs and necessary fix-ups to utility systems, according to the NPS. It affects some of the U.S.’s most popular national parks, including Grand Canyon, where repairs to a burst pipe have been put on hold, and Yellowstone, where roads are in need of repaving. Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), said some parks like Yellowstone haven’t seen repairs in 50 years.

The legislation is “desperately needed,” Brengel said, adding that putting money toward the projects for the next five years is necessary. “[It’ll] take them off the deferred maintenance list and get these infrastructure issues taken care of once and for all.”

The money from ROPA would provide up to $1.3 billion of mandatory funding every fiscal year for the next five years and would be sourced from oil and gas energy receipts not already designated for other programs. The amount of money would vary based on energy revenue and would be kept in the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund in the treasury.

“Today’s markup was a really good sign,” Brengel said of Tuesday’s outcome. “Not only was it great to see a really good bipartisan vote in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but the level of enthusiasm for moving it to the Senate floor has never been so high.”

Support also was strong for setting aside permanent funding for LWCF, which helps fund a variety of federal, state and local resources and recreation areas—including national wildlife refuges, national forests, states parks and even zoos.

Congress created LWCF in 1964 as a way to invest in public lands and waters. The bipartisan program is unique in that it is funded with revenue from offshore energy development. LWCF takes the money from those oil and gas royalties and invests it in natural areas like national and other public parks, helping to offset the environmental impact of energy production, according to the LWCF Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for the program.

From its inception, LWCF has received discretionary federal funding, requiring Congress to set aside money to it every year. If policy makers vote to make the funds mandatory, the program would automatically receive the full $900 million in annual funding, unless Congress moves to change it. The LWCF has only once received full funding since it was created, said Amy Lindholm, LWCF Coalition manager.

The proposal to permanently fund LWCF comes less than a year after Congress voted to permanently authorize the program itself. The decision was included in a bipartisan public lands package signed into law in March. 

In previous years, Congress failed to fully fund LWCF, which meant that more than half of the money earmarked for the program was consistently moved into other parts of the federal budget, Lindholm said. But LWCF was designed to offset energy production—not be “just another federal spending program.”

“The smart idea is when you deplete a natural resource, you take some of the profit from that and invest it in other resources,” she said.  

In addition to helping fund public lands, the money can be applied toward purchasing private lands within national parks, which saves the parks time and money by making it easier to create trails and manage endangered species, Lindholm said. In the past, owners of private lands within national park boundaries sometimes opted to sell to developers. 

The LWCF could contribute even more if it were fully funded. “It can do so much more, and it needs to do so much more,” she said.  

The next step for both bills is to get them on the Senate floor, either as standalone bills or as part of a package. They also will need to pass through the U.S. House of Representatives. Similar LWCF and ROPA bills have already passed through a House committee. It remains to be seen whether either bill will become law before the end of the year.

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