Key conservation fund for parks set to expire

Key conservation fund for parks set to expire
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A key funding mechanism for parks and recreational facilities is set to expire Sunday due to inaction from Congress.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has broad, bipartisan support, and bills are moving through both the House and the Senate to authorize the program indefinitely.

But lawmakers couldn’t get their differing bills across the finish line before the current law authorizing the program expires.

The program takes a portion of payments the federal government gets from offshore oil and natural gas production, and puts it toward federal, state, local and even private projects like buying land for parks, building recreational facilities and opening new areas for access. Sunday will be the LWCF’s second lapse in authorization in three years.

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“It’s frustrating that we’re here right now,” said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a Montana-based sportsmen’s group.

“Congress should be working for the people, and this is one of those places where they haven’t stepped up,” he said.

The immediate impact of the lapse might not be very noticeable.

The LWCF still has billions of dollars in it — $39 billion as of last year, Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said — and can continue to pay out to projects, but it cannot collect new money. The revenue that would usually come to it from offshore oil and natural gas payments will instead go into the general federal treasury.

“The program goes on, the program is funded,” said Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower cites Trump tweets as impetus for California emissions probe | Democrats set July vote for major conservation bill, blaming Republicans for delay | Trump vows crackdown on monument vandalism Democrats set July vote for major conservation bill, blaming Republicans for delay Natural Resources Democrats again rebuff Republican complaints about virtual meetings MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who has a bill to renew LWCF indefinitely, so that lawmakers don’t have to worry about it lapsing again.

“It’s a fake issue. Anyone who throws that issue around obviously is doing that for political impact. It has no practical impact,” he said. “It’s a stupid issue if you really know what you’re talking about. But it’s a great talking point if you don’t know anything.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the panel, sees it differently. 

“It’s an ideological issue with them,” Grijalva said of the GOP. “There seems to be no movement.”

The House left Friday and won’t be back in session until after Election Day, for a lame duck session. Grijalva thinks it might be easier to renew LWCF then.

“I'm beginning to reconcile myself to the fact that it might be part of the lame duck discussion and a package of bills around land issues, simply because there's no movement from [Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.), even though we voiced it out of committee,” he said. “It’s ready to go, we negotiated a deal.”

Bishop and Grijalva reached a landmark agreement this month on an indefinite LWCF renewal, which passed the Natural Resources Committee by voice vote. It mandates that 40 percent of the money will go to state projects and 40 percent to federal, with 3 percent going to open up lands for access by hunters, fishers and other recreation, among other changes.

Previously, Bishop had resisted efforts to indefinitely extend LWCF. But the package he negotiated with Grijalva has enough reforms to the program that he could live with it.

“I think what Grijalva and I came up with is a good solution for how to fix it and how to do it permanently,” Bishop said.

Meanwhile, the Senate is catching up. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is likely on Oct. 2 to vote on a bill from Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellOvernight Energy: Supreme Court reinstates fast-track pipeline permit except for Keystone XL | Judge declines to reverse Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown OVERNIGHT 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 MORE (Wash.) — with dozens of cosponsors in both parties — to indefinitely reauthorize LWCF.

But Cantwell’s bill is expected to face opposition from Bishop due to her proposal to make the program mandatory, which would remove it from the annual appropriations process.

Despite the momentum in both chambers, advocates for the LWCF aren’t resting on their laurels.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Biden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? MORE (R-N.C.) has been taking numerous opportunities in recent weeks to speak on the Senate floor about the LWCF, and has held up unrelated legislation to try to guarantee a vote to reauthorize it.

“It’s a shame that we’re talking about permanently reauthorizing the LWCF just days before it expires, when we could have easily solved this problem months ago,” Burr said in a statement.

“This is a no brainer: LWCF costs taxpayers nothing and benefits them greatly, with a proven track record of success built over the last 50 years,” he said. “We aren’t giving up, and I am confident we will succeed in permanently reauthorizing the LWCF.

Burr joined with Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K Democrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick MORE (R-Colo.) and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesMore Republicans should support crisis aid for the Postal Service Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate MORE (R-Mont.) to rally in the Senate this week for the program.

“This is our top priority this year,” said Tawney. “What it means for access and conservation just can’t be understated.”

— Miranda Green contributed.