WASHINGTON – Help is on the way for America’s neglected national parks after the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a landmark conservation package to address a nearly $20 billion maintenance backlog on public lands and pour $900 million a year into a fund used to maintain and acquire new land for parks.
President Donald Trump has said he will sign the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which combines two longtime priorities of conservationists. The first would use up to $1.9 billion in each of the next five years, drawn from revenue from energy extraction on public lands, to chip away at the backlog of work the National Parks Service and other agencies have had to put off for lack of funds.
The second half of the bill would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress established in 1964 with the leadership of the late Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. The LWCF has been fully funded just twice since its creation, but the bill guarantees $900 million a year generated from offshore oil and gas leasing for the fund, which can be used to acquire land for conservation efforts and give grants to state and local governments for everything from baseball fields to public pools.
Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican who represents most of Boise and eastern Idaho, introduced the House version of the bill along with Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C.
“Not only does this bill support hundreds of thousands of jobs, but it protects and maintains our public lands for generations that aren’t even born yet,” Simpson said in a statement. “The Great American Outdoors Act ensures that projects are vetted by Congress annually, funds the programs without using taxpayer funds, and continues important state-based projects like greenbelts, parks, and community pools. Bottom line, this bill is great for Idaho and public lands across this country.”
The fact that the legislation uses no taxpayer dollars helped it pass the Senate in June with support of every Democrat and more than half of GOP senators. But 104 of the House’s 198 Republicans – including Simpson’s fellow Idahoan, Rep. Russ Fulcher – opposed giving the federal government more money to acquire land.
“I spend a lot of time in the rural counties of Idaho,” Fulcher said on the House floor Wednesday. “Residents and local governments, understandably, have serious concerns regarding additional federal land acquisition, especially at a time when federal resources are stretched so thin.”
That concern was also raised by ranchers’ groups, including the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and the Idaho Wool Growers Association, who were among 48 livestock and natural resources groups that signed a letter opposing the legislation.
”Our main concern is that this puts $900 million a year for these federal agencies to be purchasing more lands when there is already a backlog of maintenance on the lands they already own,” said Mark Streuli, acting executive vice president of the Ellensburg-based Washington Cattlemen’s Association. “It’s just hard for us to swallow that they can’t take care of what they’ve got but they’re going to go out and buy more land.”
Simpson replied to that concern on the House floor Wednesday, pointing out that nearly all LWCF funds have been used to acquire “inholdings” – privately owned areas surrounded by federal land – and the government can’t use the money to seize property through eminent domain.
”The bill does not expand the federal footprint,” he said, “because 99% of the LWCF purchases are within existing public lands. The bill does not force anyone to sell their property, since it is willing seller and willing buyer.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, co-sponsored separate legislation to address the maintenance backlog that became part of the package, but speaking before Wednesday’s vote he also opposed permanently funding the LWCF, preferring to let lawmakers continue to appropriate money to the fund at their discretion each year.
”I fear that the sweeping nature of this legislation will have unintended consequences for rural communities like mine,” said Newhouse, who wrote in a June op-ed that “setting mandatory spending for LWCF into perpetuity eliminates congressional oversight of these funds.”
But Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director at the Boise-based Idaho Conservation League, said the past 56 years since Congress established the LWCF have shown that making funding optional hasn’t worked.
”In some cases in the past, Congress has effectively raided those funds for deficit reduction or for other purposes,” he said. “So this really fulfills a commitment from Congress from way back in 1964 that when those funds are deposited into that account, that they are going toward the important conservation purposes for which it was set up.”
The National Park Service, which accounts for about $12 billion of the nearly $20 billion maintenance backlog on public lands, will receive 70% of the $1.9 billion each year to chip away at that backlog – 15% will go to the U.S. Forest Service and 5% each to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education.
Two national forests in Idaho, Nez Perce-Clearwater and Idaho Panhandle, have the biggest Forest Service maintenance backlogs in the U.S., with $144 million and $140 of deferred work, respectively.
The National Park Service lists more than $427 million in deferred work in Washington, including $186 million at Mount Rainier National Park and $126 million at Olympic National Park.
The bill has been a major priority for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who championed a public lands package that became law in February 2019, permanently authorizing the LWCF. She later introduced a bill to permanently fund the LWCF – an additional step needed to guarantee money each year – that was rolled into the bill passed by the House on Wednesday.
“I applaud my House colleagues for passing this legislation and getting it to the president’s desk,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Investment in maintenance helps keep our parks open and allows them to serve more visitors. … We’re also fixing decades of underinvestment in public lands by permanently fixing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will give Americans two- to three-times more dollars invested in parks and open space at no cost to the taxpayer.”
In the Spokane area, LWCF grants have helped fund green space along the Spokane River and work at Bidwell Park. The passage of the lands package Wednesday should mean more federal dollars for projects including preserving the mountain biking trails on Beacon Hill and upgrading a public pool in the town of Garfield, according to a Cantwell aide.
Spokane Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, was among 81 House Republicans who voted for the bill, along with all but two Democrats.
“In the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with abundant wildlife and natural beauty, and we must work to preserve these resources for the next generation,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “This legislation accomplishes a longtime priority for me, addressing the maintenance backlog at our National Parks. Outdoor recreation contributes more than $25 billion to Washington state’s economy every year and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. We need to be good stewards of our public lands and parks so they can be enjoyed by people in Eastern Washington and across the country.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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