Fight looms over conservation funds

Fight looms over conservation funds
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Lawmakers are primed for a fight over the future of a critical environmental conservation program.

A Senate panel approved a bill last week to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a $300 million federal program that pays for land acquisition and recreation projects on public lands around the country.

The 50-year-old program is set to expire at the end of September, and its renewal traditionally garners bipartisan support in the Capitol.

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But on the House side, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopWalden retirement adds to GOP election woes Overnight Energy: Automakers group sides with Trump in emissions lawsuit | Latest on California wildfires | Walden won't seek reelection | Park Service scraps plan to charge protesters for security Oregon GOP Rep. Greg Walden won't seek reelection MORE (R-Utah) wants reforms before reauthorizing it this year.

Critics say the program, which provides money to federal and state conservation programs, has been diverted from its original purpose. They fear funding levels now favor the federal government, which they worry is using the money to buy up land voraciously.

Bishop wants to change the funding scheme to send more money to state programs rather than the federal ones.

But LWCF supporters fear that with no clear consensus on how to divide the funds, critics might let the entire conservation program lapse entirely.

In a May op-ed in the magazine Parks and Recreation, Bishop said federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management are struggling to overcome a maintenance backlog, and laid out his argument for states to get more funding to take on LWCF efforts.

“A simple solution paves the way out,” he wrote then. “Give more control back to the state and local governments that are much closer to the problem, nimbler, better able to fix what’s broken, and have a proven track record of providing safe and enjoyable recreation to the public."

At its onset in the 1960s, the LWCF provided about 60 percent of its funds to state programs, but that balance has shifted toward the federal government over time.

Supporters of the law say that's the right mix. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, said that providing more funding for states could actually lead to less funding for conservation programs by encouraging officials to scale back state efforts while using federal funds to close the gap.

“It becomes another block grant for the states, which becomes a slush fund when you have no restrictions,” he said this week. “When you have states brag about the fact they’ve cut all these taxes and they’re balancing the budget, then that becomes a convenient vehicle to supplement their revenue share.”

But many lawmakers, including western Republicans like Bishop and Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid GOP senators discuss impeachment with Trump after House vote MORE (R-Wyo.), say localities are best able to run the LWCF-funded initiatives, such as city recreation programs, forestry grants, endangered species enforcement and others.

Local government groups share that argument.

“I think certainly the state-side component of the program is very popular with our members and is politically a little less tricky than the other side,” said Chris Marklund the associate legislative director for public lands at the National Association of Counties.

Marklund said the federal program’s focus on land acquisition can hurt counties that rely on private land ownership for property tax revenue. The federal government has a separate program to fund counties with large areas of non-taxable federally owned land.

Marklund proposed, as Bishop did in his May op-ed, giving local governments a bigger say in which lands the federal government can acquire.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee aimed to balance those concerns. In an energy reform bill it approved this week, the panel reauthorized the LWCF and guaranteed that both the federal government and the states each receive at least 40 percent of annual appropriations for the fund in the future.

The remaining 20 percent would be allocated at Congress’s discretion.

At a press conference last week, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP Hillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Senators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban MORE (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the committee, said the bill “established basically a maintenance fund within our national parks system,” while protecting minimum funding for both states and the feds.

Conservation groups and Democrats on the committee endorsed that approach.

“This change represents the current way this is working and would codify that,” said Alan Rowsome, the senior director of government relations at the Wilderness Society. “It’s a ratio that makes sense, given how the program has worked.”

But in a preview of the concerns of House conservatives, Barrasso pushed last week to tweak the formula and guarantee even more funding — 50 percent annually — for states.

The approach, Barrasso said at a markup on Tuesday, “supports rural and urban parks and ensures more people would be able to recreate — to play and exercise outdoors in their local communities — that local parks and projects have a direct impact on the quality of life in these communities.”

Murkowski backed Barrasso’s amendment, but most of the committee rebuffed him.

“This is a very delicate balance here,” ranking member Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellHillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate MORE (D-Wash.) said. “I think that we should keep this balance in the legislation, otherwise I think we're going to have a lot of trouble moving forward on the LWCF provision, which, I think, also makes it more challenging overall when we get to the floor.”

LWCF supporters’ focus now is getting the bill through Congress by the Sept. 30 reauthorization deadline. Senators moved their bill quickly and, as Murkowski and Cantwell have said, they’re keen on getting the agreement on the Senate floor soon.

In the House, Bishop aides said he “will be looking at an array of options for the best path forward for LWCF” between now and the deadline. But it is unclear what funding formula the House will endorse.

Rowsome said he worries some members will let the program expire rather than reauthorize it in its current form.

Grijalva has a bill, co-sponsored by more than a dozen Republicans, for a clean reauthorization, but he acknowledged he doesn’t see a path forward for it now.

“At this point, coming back from the break, hopefully there will be a degree of seriousness about issues in Interior and under the jurisdiction of the Resources Committee,” he said.

“The clock is ticking.”

Timothy Cama contributed to this report.