House panel approves bill to boost park funding

House panel approves bill to boost park funding
© Greg Nash

A House committee voted Thursday to advance a landmark bipartisan bill to boost funding for national parks and public lands, using money from oil drilling and other energy production.

The House Natural Resources Committee passed the bill by voice vote with strong support from both parties.

The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act would take half of the federal government’s income from energy production on federal lands and offshore and put it in a fund to pay for maintenance for the National Park Service (NPS) and other agencies.

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The measure represents a rare agreement between the GOP, which is cautious about spending new taxpayer money on federal land, and Democrats, who have long advocated for new reliable, long-term funding to plug the nearly $12 billion NPS maintenance backlog.

“We have advocated and we have developed these properties in the past,” Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopThe House Republicans and Democrats not seeking reelection in 2020 Texas GOP lawmaker Conaway announces retirement Texas GOP Rep. Conaway won't seek reelection: report MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said before the panel’s vote.

“We have a moral responsibility to ensure that we maintain them and that we maintain what we have before we add to that burden. And that’s what this bill attempts to do.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) also applauded the bill.

“We’ve heard repeatedly in this committee that the National Park system has nearly a $12 billion maintenance backlog. We’ve been talking about it for years and talking about dedicated funding specifically for this problem. This bill provides it,” he said.

The idea to use oil money for parks has been around for decades, in the form of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since at least early 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeNew policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press Overnight Energy: EPA proposes scrapping limits on coal plant waste | Appointee overseeing federal lands once advocated selling them | EPA lifts Obama-era block on controversial mine Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them MORE and lawmakers in both parties have advocated for a new fund for the maintenance backlog, paid for with energy money.

Grijalva and other Democrats had objected to earlier forms of the proposal. As advocated for by Zinke and some in the GOP, the new fund would have potentially incentivized new drilling.

“Today’s bill does not condition money for parks on increased energy production. That was not a trade-off that needed to be made,” he said.

The fund would be capped at $1.3 billion a year, and the annual congressional appropriations would have no influence over its spending. In addition to the NPS, the money could go to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education schools.

The committee rejected numerous proposed amendments, including 20 from Rep. Garrett Graves (R-La.). He and Rep. Mike JohnsonJames (Mike) Michael JohnsonConservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess Nadler shuts down Republican point of order after impeachment question Live coverage: Mueller testifies before Congress MORE (R-La.) feared that the new public lands fund would remove money that would otherwise go to coastal states from offshore drilling.

“This bill threatens to draw from an already overburdened fund. And it’s a fund that, in my state of Louisiana, is crucial to hurricane preparedness and flood-risk mitigation and coastal restoration,” said Johnson.

The amendments would have attached various conditions to the revenue, including that NPS couldn’t spend more than $250 per square foot on any buildings or that no money could be spent until recovery from this this year’s wildfires and Hurricane Florence was complete.

“These are well-thought-out and sound policies. They absolutely advance this legislation in a direction that makes an awful lot of sense,” Graves said before the panel voted down more than a dozen of his proposals in one vote.