Bills funding public lands and conservation passed a key U.S. Senate committee with bipartisan support on Tuesday, a move praised by outdoor groups and environmental advocates.
The four federal agencies tasked with managing public lands – the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service – are facing a maintenance backlog of more than $19 billion. The National Park Service alone faces nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance costs, which are maintenance costs that have been put off due to budgetary constraints.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday advanced 15 bills, among them a bill to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Restore Our Parks Act.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) uses revenue from offshore drilling rather than taxpayer dollars to go toward funding conservation on public lands at the state and federal levels. LWCF has been permanently reauthorized and can receive up to $900 million from offshore drilling royalties, but Congress typically diverts a significant amount of that funding. The bill that passed the committee on Tuesday would fully and permanently fund the program.
The Restore Our Parks Act would address the national park maintenance backlog by creating a National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund that would add up to $1.3 billion annually for the next five years toward paying for deferred maintenance costs in the federal parks system.
Outdoor groups and environmental advocates touted the bills’ approval by the committee.
“Decades of neglect and misplaced priorities have contributed to an $11.6 billion backlog of deferred maintenance in our national parks – an amount that is several times higher than the agency's annual budget,” said Shawn Regan, a research fellow for the Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environment Research Center, a libertarian research group. “It is great to see that Congress is finally making real progress at maintaining, not just expanding America's public lands.”
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership made up of conservation and outdoor groups, said “it is extremely meaningful to see investments in habitat, access, and outdoor recreation uncoupled from a deeply entrenched federal appropriations process. We encourage lawmakers to move [the LWCF bill] swiftly to the Senate floor.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, a cosponsor of the LWCF legislation, said that his state benefits from the fund and “fighting year after year about how much money to provide the program does not provide the long-term planning certainty our outdoor and conservation communities deserve.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colorado, joined House colleagues in a letter urging House leadership to work with the Senate in passing full LWCF funding.
The bills will likely be voted on by the full Senate early next year followed by the House.
The committee also advanced key cabinet nominations: Dan Brouillette for secretary of the Energy Department secretary; James Danly for membership to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and Katharine MacGregor for Interior Department deputy secretary.