Senate Approves Bipartisan $2.8 Billion Plan to Benefit Conservation, Parks

June 18, 2020 by Dan McCue
Emigrant Peak is seen rising above the Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River near Emigrant, Mont. Lawmakers have reached bipartisan agreement on an election-year deal to double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

WASHINGTON – The Senate passed a major bipartisan public lands bill Wednesday authorizing the spending of nearly $3 billion a year on conservation projects, outdoor recreation and maintenance of national parks and other public lands.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed in a 73-25 vote, will now be taken up in the House, where its approval is also expected.

The bill permanently provides $900 million in oil and gas revenues annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It also authorizes another $1.9 billion to be spent each year on improvements at national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges.

“Public lands hold a unique place in the life of every state in America — from their natural beauty to their use for recreation to their pivotal roles in local economies,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the floor of the Senate. chamber Wednesday.

The federal investment will “ensure this inheritance will stand the test of time for generations of Americans yet to come,” McConnell said.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents in this year’s election, is one of the bill’s chief sponsors.

During his comments on the floor, he framed the bill as a boost for economic development at a time when the economy is roiling from the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the bill will create at least 100,000 jobs in communities that have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus-related shutdowns, while also restoring the nation’s wild lands and forests.

“This is an economic and jobs package as much as it is a conservation package,” Gardner said, adding that Americans who have been shut in by the pandemic “are ready to get into the great outdoors.”

Gardner and other Republican lawmakers persuaded President Donald Trump to support the bill at a White House meeting this year, despite his repeatedly trying to slash spending for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals.

Since then he’s tweeted that the bill ” will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said permanently and fully funding the program “will be a monumental victory for conservation and the places where we all get outside.” He cited studies showing that each dollar spent by the fund creates an additional four dollars in economic value.

Visitors cannot enjoy national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite “if the bathrooms don’t work, if the trails and campgrounds aren’t open, or if the roads are in disrepair,” Heinrich said. “These places that we all cherish deserve better.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., credited a coalition of lawmakers from both parties who support conservation and public lands.

“We’ve made people aware of the juggernaut that the outdoors economy has been,” Cantwell said, noting statistics showing that outdoor recreation and tourism supports $887 billion a year in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs, much of it in the West.

“America deserves a break right now, and the outdoors is restorative,” Cantwell said.

The conservation fund is paid for by revenue from offshore drilling for oil and gas, and that has led to complaints by some Gulf Coast senators that inland states receive an unfair share. Senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to target his state and three others for additional spending.

Twenty-five senators, all Republicans, opposed the bill. Twenty-eight Republicans supported it, along with 43 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats. Two senators, both Democrats, missed the vote.

Prior to the vote some Democrats claimed the Republican Senate leadership was anxious to pass the bill to bolster the electoral prospects of Gardner and the equally vulnerable Sen. Steve Daine of Montana.

But at least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, rejected that notion, saying “the best politics is good government.

“Permanent Land and Water Conservation Fund funding will help improve access to public lands, including providing important access for hunting and fishing opportunities, and will ensure the program remains an important contributor to a strong and growing outdoor recreation economy that will benefit state and local economies throughout our nation,” Manchin said.

Following the vote, Kristine Stratton, president and CEO of the National Recreation and Park Association, applauded the Senators who supported the bill.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a program that is incredibly important for communities across America,” Stratton said. “This marks a huge win for our more than 60,000 members and advocates, who work tirelessly to serve the public with parks and trails in urban and rural communities throughout the country.”

“Now, we urge the House to pass the Great American Outdoors Act and ensure that LWCF becomes fully funded and therefore can effectively serve communities through parks, outdoor recreation, conservation, and health and wellness,” she said.

A recent NRPA poll found that 83% of U.S. adults agree that visiting their local parks, trails and open spaces is essential for their mental and physical well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will Goodwin, director of government relations for the Vet Voice Foundation, said the environmental victory “comes as the result of so many veterans, military families, allied groups, and individuals — around the country and in the halls of Congress — putting in the work and demanding that our cherished public lands be protected.

But we’re not quite done yet,” he said. “We now ask that the U.S. House of Representatives moves swiftly to pass this common sense, bipartisan legislation so it can reach the president’s desk as soon as possible.

“A vote in support of The Great American Outdoors Act is a vote in support of our nation’s veterans. We applaud the bipartisan momentum behind this bill,” Goodwin said.

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