Senate panel moves to renew expired park conservation fund

Senate panel moves to renew expired park conservation fund
© Greg Nash

A Senate committee voted Tuesday to revive a popular funding mechanism for parks and conservation, days after its legal authority expired.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a 16-7 vote approved a bill to indefinitely renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), setting the legislation up for a potential vote in the full Senate.

The fund has strong bipartisan support and has put billions of dollars into federal, state, local and even private parks and other places over the last 53 years.

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Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate votes to extend key funding mechanism for parks White House poised to take action on AI, 5G Overnight Energy: States press Trump on pollution rules | EPA puts climate skeptic on science board | Senate tees up vote on federal lands bill MORE (Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, 1.5 percent of the fund's payouts must help improve access to lands for recreation.

Cantwell said the LWCF “has pumped billions of dollars into the outdoor economy and has provided for millions of good jobs."

“Protecting our public lands is good for the environment, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for the health and welfare of our people,” she said.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the most important programs we have. I believe it is the crown jewel of our conservation programs,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia Dems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt Lawmakers eager for 5G breakthrough MORE (R-Colo.).

The panel rejected a series of amendments from Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 New act can help us grapple with portion of exploding national debt MORE (R-Utah) to put restrictions on the program, like renewing it for only 10 years and requiring that it spend more money on public lands maintenance than on the government buying new land.

The House will have to take action before any legislation can be sent to the White House, and there are important differences between the bill moving through the Senate and legislation in the House.

The House Natural Resources Committee passed a bipartisan bill last month to indefinitely renew the LWCF, the result of a rare deal between Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopSenate votes to extend key funding mechanism for parks Republicans push back at first climate hearings Climate change on front burner after 8 years of GOP rule MORE (R-Utah) and ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

That bill would require at least 40 percent of the funds to go to states and 40 percent to the federal government.

Another key difference is that the Senate bill would turn the LWCF into a mandatory program, making its revenue — up to $900 million a year — exempt from the annual appropriations process.

Bishop has vehemently fought efforts to make it mandatory, as have numerous other Republicans in both chambers. That factor caused Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration GOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees Senate votes to extend key funding mechanism for parks MORE (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to oppose the legislation, even though she supports permanently authorizing the LWCF.

Because Congress has not renewed the LWCF, it can no longer collect revenue from offshore oil and natural gas drilling. That money goes into the general federal treasury instead.

The LWCF still has billions of dollars in its coffers, which it can use to fund parks and conservation.

The Senate committee also passed Tuesday, by a vote of 19 to 4, a bill to create a new fund that could pump billions of dollars into the National Park Service.

The Restore Our Parks Act would take half of the money the federal government gets from energy production offshore and on federal land and that hasn’t been dedicated to another purposes and put it toward the Park Service’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog.

The idea has the backing of Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? MORE.

“To me, it’s about good stewardship,” said Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSteel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal Lawmakers divided over how to end shutdowns for good MORE (R-Ohio), who introduced the bill with Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry MORE (D-Va.).

“And it’s about saving federal tax dollars over the long term, with predictable funding for capital expenditures.”

The House Natural Resources Committee passed its version of the legislation last month. That bill is similar, but it would let the money go to maintenance at the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education.

Updated at 12:21 p.m.