The U.S. Senate is expected to vote early next week on a bill titled the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422), which would create a new fund to pay for deferred maintenance on public lands and provide automatic annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
An identical bill (H. 7092) has been introduced in the House by a bipartisan group of 12 representatives, including Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. The House is expected to take it up by the end of June.
The bill states that half of all federal revenue from oil, gas, coal and alternative energy development shall be deposited in the new National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. Seventy percent of that money would go toward maintenance projects in national parks, and 15 percent would go toward such projects on national forests and 5 percent for projects on BLM land.
According to a press release from Simpson’s office, Idaho’s national forests have some of the largest deferred maintenance needs, including on roads and trails.
Established by Congress in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is intended to protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks-and-recreation projects. Since 1970, the fund has provided $958,000 for 13 projects in Blaine County.
Every year, the fund receives about $900 million from royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf, though only part of that actually gets appropriated each year for conservation projects. According to the nonprofit Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, in fiscal 2020, only $495 million was appropriated to the fund—the highest amount in 15 years. The Great American Outdoors Act would require the money deposited in the fund to be spent for the fund’s purposes, without a need for annual appropriation.
The bill states that revenue going to the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund shall not come from revenue deposited in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It also caps the amount going into the new fund at $1.9 billion.
“The amount of money generated from offshore oil is huge, ranging from $2.5 billion to $8 billion a year, so there’s plenty there for both the parks deferred maintenance and the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Mary Jo Brooks, a spokeswoman for the National Wildlife Federation, an organization promoting the bill.
The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and has 59 bipartisan co-sponsors. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both voted no, in the minority, on two procedural votes this week to move the bill forward.
According to Simpson’s office, President Donald Trump supports the bill.
In early March, Trump sent a tweet saying, “I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”
John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said in an interview Thursday that the Trump administration has for a long time supported funding through energy revenues for park maintenance, but until March had proposed appropriating little money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“It’s reassuring that the administration came around on this,” he said.
However, the association reported on Feb. 10 that Trump’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget, released that day, included a $587 million (17 percent) cut for National Park Service operations.
“It’s not only important to repair and conserve parks, but it’s also important to assure that they have what they need to operate properly, and the administration has a lot of growth to do on that,” Garder said.