Senate passes major lands conservation bill

The Senate passed a major public lands bill on Wednesday, voting to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars each year for conservation efforts.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed in a 73-25 vote, would permanently provide $900 million in oil and gas revenues for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which helps secure land for trails and parks.

The legislation will also put $6.5 billion toward addressing a maintenance backlog at national parks.

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“Permanent LWCF 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,” Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget McConnell on filibuster talk: Democrats want to 'vandalize' Senate rules MORE (D-W.Va.), who was part of a bipartisan group that introduced the bill, said in a floor speech. 

The bill, which has broad bipartisan support, now heads to the House.

The lower chamber is expected to take up the bill by July 4, according to a senior Democratic aide. 

The legislation also recently secured the backing of President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE, who in earlier budgets proposed cutting the conservation fund by about 97 percent.

The election year reversal stands to benefit two particularly vulnerable Republican senators — Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary MORE (Colo.) and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesPolitical establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme Lincoln Project releases new pro-Biden ad in swing states The Hill's Campaign Report: Progressives feel momentum after primary night MORE (Mont.) — who are chief backers of the bill and who Trump cited when announcing his support.

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"I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks," Trump tweeted in March. "When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands. ALL thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines, two GREAT Conservative Leaders!"

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE (R-Ky.) has pushed back on the notion that the legislation was intended to boost the vulnerable incumbents in November.

“It’s in proximity to the election, but nobody said you ought to quit doing things just because there’s an election,” he told reporters this month.

Securing permanent funding for the LWCF caps a multiyear effort to shore up funding to preserve vast stretches of U.S. wilderness for recreation.

The program secured permanent authorization last year, but its funding was never guaranteed.

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“This legislation affects all four corners of Colorado, but it also affects every part of this country,” said Gardner. “From sea to shining sea, ... The Great American Outdoors Act will provide billions of dollars in opportunity for recreation.”

Billions of dollars in repairs to National Park System have been delayed because of budget constraints.

As of 2018, that backlog consisted of nearly $12 billion worth of deferred repairs. 

Republicans who opposed the legislation raised concerns about the cost of taking care of the maintenance backlog as well as spending the oil and gas revenues on the LWCF.

“It’s expensive, shortsighted and it’s wrong,” said Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate panel votes 21-1 to back Justice IG measure over Graham objections Senators offer bill to expand charitable giving tax break Overnight Energy: Senate passes major lands conservation bill | Mnuchin ordered to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding | Key Republican jeopardizes Trump consumer safety nominee MORE (R-Utah).

He argued that the money coming from oil and gas “is currently going to the United States Treasury to pay for a number of other costs ... and will only add to our already ballooning national debt.”

Some lawmakers also had wished there was an amendment process. 

"There are things that we can do to improve this bill," said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police MORE (R-Alaska), who supported the bill. “I think I’ve got some very common sense ideas to expand the bill to include conservation-related priorities, priorities that make sense for Alaska, priorities that make sense for our states across the country.”