Senate seeks massive permanent boost in conservation funding

Senate seeks massive permanent boost in conservation funding
© Greg Nash

Conservation funding would get a dramatic boost under a coming bill from a bipartisan group of senators following a major policy reversal from President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE

The legislation would permanently direct $900 million in oil and gas revenue to fully fund the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), ensuring resources for a program Trump previously proposed gutting.

“There are very few things that we as legislators do that we can rightly say are permanent. This is one of those things where we're doing something for the people of America and for generations yet unborn that's going to make a real difference,” said Sen. Angus KingAngus KingWe weren't ready for a pandemic — imagine a crippling cyberattack Senators offer bill to extend tax filing deadline Russia using coronavirus fears to spread misinformation in Western countries MORE (I-Maine).

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“It was said that this is the most important piece of conservation legislation in 50 years. I think it may even go beyond that," he added.

LWCF funds a variety of conservation efforts, such as securing land for parks. The legislation would be paired with a revived bill offering up $6.5 billion to address a more than $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks. The bills could come to the floor as early as next week.

After years of similar efforts, an election-year reversal from Trump is giving lawmakers new momentum. 

Despite suggesting cutting LWCF funds by as much as 97 percent year after year, including in his most recent budget proposal, Trump on Tuesday called for a bill to fully fund the program.

His Tuesday tweet specifically thanked Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerRomney says he tested negative for coronavirus, will remain in quarantine Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Markets expected to plunge amid partisan squabbling MORE (R-Colo.), whose Senate seat is considered one of the most vulnerable of the 2020 election cycle. Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesHow much damage? The true cost of the Senate's coronavirus relief bill McConnell says T bill is 'emergency relief' and not a 'stimulus' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden moves to unify party before general election MORE (R-Mont.) could also face a tough reelection campaign if former Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockPolitics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden moves to unify party before general election Poll shows Daines, Bullock neck and neck in Montana Senate race MORE (D) enters the race, as reported by The New York Times. 

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“While some may want to dwell on politics, I’m going to dwell on the good [that] the great outdoors does for the American people,” Gardner said at a press conference, flanked by 11 other lawmakers. 

With each lawmaker stressing the bipartisan backing behind the two pieces of legislation — 68 senators have signed on to the previous versions of one or both bills — Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinWhite House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on Senate fails to advance coronavirus stimulus bill for second time in two days MORE (D-W.Va.) defended Garner’s long-held interest.

“When we drafted the bill, Cory was the first one to take the lead,” Manchin said. “We’re in a situation where we’re in a crossroads right now. In our lifetime this has never happened. So we got to take advantage of this.”

“So, politics be damned. Let’s get it done," he said.

Since it was created in 1964, the LWCF has supported more than 42,000 projects, bolstering parks and expanding acres of conservation areas.

While the program was made permanent last year, its funding was not. And though lawmakers have repeatedly rejected Trump’s suggestion to massively defund the program, they have not succeeded in fully funding it, instead securing about $450 million last year.

Lawmakers seemed confident this year would be different given both presidential and bipartisan support. 

“We have more than enough votes to move beyond anybody who raises an objection,” Gardner said.

Lawmakers said they were able to convince Trump to reverse his opinion after a meeting where they showed pictures of various landscapes from their states that had benefited from LWCF money. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden spar over coronavirus response Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Schumer praises choice of Defense inspector general to oversee corporate lending fund MORE (R-Ky.) has agreed to fast-track the legislation.

“Somehow somebody worked a miracle,” Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMcConnell sets Friday night deadline for bipartisan deal on stimulus Washington state lawmakers warn health workers running low on protective gear Carper staffer tests positive in Delaware MORE (D-Wash.) said, “because now all of a sudden a White House who hasn't been for land and water conservation funds ... is now seeing the light that this is a great economic investment for the future.”