Top Republican looks to overhaul conservation program

Top Republican looks to overhaul conservation program
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A top House Republican has unveiled a bill to overhaul a key conservation fund, intending to give more power over the program to the states.

The bill, from House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopCongress was just handed a blueprint for solving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis Does new high-profile support for Puerto Rico statehood bid increase its chances? Puerto Rico fiscal plan cuts one-third of government to save economy MORE (R-Utah), would reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund but shift its focus to state and local projects while limiting the federal government’s ability to acquire new areas of public land.

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“If we’re going to spend this much money, we can’t think small,” Bishop said Thursday. “We have to think of something big that’s going to help people. Otherwise we shouldn’t be doing it at all.”

Bishop and other Western Republicans have criticized the fund for what they consider an unfair split between state and federal funding.

At its onset in the 1960s, the fund gave about 60 percent of its money to state programs. That balance has shifted toward the federal government over time, and Bishop said his bill would reverse that trend.

Authority for the fund lapsed at the end of September, and outdoors and conservation groups have pushed Congress to pass a bill reauthorizing it. Lawmakers, including some Republicans, have tried to do the same. 

A Senate panel looked to reform the system in August, passing a bill the would have provided 40 percent of the fund each to state and federal programs, with 20 percent to be allocated annually at Congress’s discretion. 

But Bishop has resisted that push, saying the program needed further changes before it could be extended.

“We’ve got to reshape the discussion so that we’re actually talking about how we can make all this money that we are using useful, so it actually helps people and we can be proud of the progress we are making,” he said. 

Bishop’s bill would reauthorize the fund at its current level — $900 million a year, though lawmakers traditionally appropriate far less than that. The bill requires 45 percent of its annual appropriation to go toward state programs, with a minimum of 30 percent of that slated for urban areas. 

The bill limits the federal government’s ability to purchase new land, saying only 3.5 percent of the fund can go toward that purpose. Only "in-holdings," land adjacent to current federal spaces, would be available for purchase.

The program is funded by offshore drilling royalties, and more than 20 percent of the fund is slated to go toward related activities, which Bishop said would stabilize it and boost the offshore energy workforce. 

Bishop’s proposal quickly drew scorn from conservation groups, who have called a reauthorization of the bill without changes.

In a statement, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition said it “rejects” the proposal, warning it would “undermine the integrity of America’s most successful and necessary conservation program.”

“When we allow offshore drilling for oil and gas that belongs to all of us, we set aside a small portion of the proceeds to protect America’s greatest places and ensure outdoor recreation opportunities for all, from local parks to national parks,” the group’s co-chairman, Alan Rowsome, said.  

“This proposal would break that link, deny Americans the chance to protect the places they love, and further divert scarce conservation resources to unrelated purposes.”

In a statement, the League of Conservation Voters said “America’s best parks program has died” under Bishop’s proposal. 

“His radical new bill is miles apart from the original intent of the program, which is to conserve places for future generations and increase outdoor recreation opportunities across the country,” Andy French, the group’s land conservation fellow, said.

The program formally lapsed at the end of the fiscal year in September, but its funding was extended in a continuing resolution that lasts through mid-December. Bishop said he thinks it’s possible to pass legislation on the matter this year. 

“It would be my hope that we could actually authorize this even this year, but we need to reauthorize the program and we need to make the reforms and we need to have people be serious talking about how we make this program better.” he said. 

—This post was updated at 1:05 p.m.