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Trump plan to strip public land conservation fund gets bipartisan pushback

Trump plan to strip public land conservation fund gets bipartisan pushback
© Stefani Reynolds
Republicans and Democrats pushed back against the Department of the Interior Tuesday, trying to secure funding for popular land conservation program cut under President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE’s budget.
 
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) helps state and local governments secure land for parks and wilderness areas. But the Trump budget gives no money to the fund to acquire new land, instead boosting funds to deal with maintenance backlogs at parks across the country.

“Unfortunately, although the LWCF is now permanently authorized, the program does not have any certainty of funding, as evidenced by the President’s budget proposal, which essentially zeroed out LWCF appropriations,” ranking Democrat Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Durbin: Senate should consider changes to filibuster MORE (D-W.Va.) said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing on a bipartisan bill he sponsored that would permanently fund the LWCF program. “Permanent funding is the next step Congress must take.”

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People in shirts that read “Save LWCF” have been a regular in the last few months at hearings that deal with public lands and other environmental issues. A House committee advanced a bill last week that would similarly fund the program. 

The LWCF program secured permanent authorization earlier this year in a previous lands package, and the latest legislation to fully fund the program at $900 million a year has bipartisan support. That funding comes from existing development on public lands.

Several senators said the administration is “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by trying to make a dent in a deferred maintenance backlog now around $16 billion. 

“To the extent we're siphoning off these funds for other entirely different purposes that’s really not appropriate,” said Sen. Angus KingAngus KingBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan The next pandemic may be cyber — How Biden administration can stop it Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (I-Maine), arguing that money that comes from the land should stay with the land. 

Susan Combs, the Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget said Interior is obligated to make sure parks are safe to visit.

“We are the land stewards of the stuff we already own,” she said, adding that the growing backlog takes a great deal of her attention.

Some lawmakers are resistant to relinquishing a yearly review of the program, while others are opposed to acquiring more lands for public use in states that already have a high proportion of federal lands.

“I’ve been skeptical of the need to acquire more, and I think many of my colleagues share that skepticism,” said committee Chair Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump impeachment trial to begin week of Feb. 8 Murkowski didn't vote for Trump, won't join Democrats MORE (R-Alaska). “I continue to hold the view that Congress should determine the appropriate level of funding for LWCF and how it should be allocated. We should look at it on a yearly basis, determine its funding levels relative to all of our other needs and priorities.”

Committee Democrats criticized the Trump’s Interior budget to Combs.

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts Senate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack Democratic senator raises concerns about inauguration security MORE (D-Hawaii) said Trump wanted to spend billions on a border wall but would not fund the LWCF program.

“I think it’s very clear what the priorities of this administration are,” she said.