Senate Passes Major Public Lands Bill

The Great American Outdoors Act will fix crumbling national park infrastructure and permanently support the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate has passed a sweeping public lands package that both addresses the ballooning maintenance backlog at national parks and provides full, permanent funding for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program established in 1964 to protect natural areas and water resources.

Co-sponsors of the legislation, which passed Wednesday by an overwhelming 73-25 vote, have hailed it as the most important conservation bill in a generation ― one that will preserve public lands and create thousands of jobs at a time when communities across America are reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. It now heads to the House for consideration, and President Donald Trump has promised to sign it into law.

In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called the legislation a “chance in a lifetime.”

“By helping the land, we’re helping the communities, because it’s there for future generations,” Gardner said. “This really is an opportunity for this nation to come together at a time of great need, economically and I think spiritually, quite frankly.”

Visitors Thursday at Yosemite National Park in California.
Visitors Thursday at Yosemite National Park in California.
Ezra Shaw via Getty Images

The Great American Outdoors Act combines two bills that might otherwise not have passed on their own. One sets aside $9.5 billion to address the estimated $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks, which has been a priority of the Trump administration. The other permanently supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund at the maximum $900 million per year.

Often described as one of America’s most important conservation tools, LWCF uses offshore fossil-fuel revenue to establish and protect parks, wildlife refuges, forests and important wildlife habitat. But the 50-plus year program has been plagued by funding shortfalls, only twice receiving the full $900 million.

During a floor speech ahead of the vote, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) applauded the Senate for coming together, at a time when the nation is divided, to rally around “one thing that truly unites us.”

“The outdoors is not just a luxury, it’s something we need,” he said.

Environmental, outdoor sporting and public lands advocacy groups around the country celebrated Wednesday’s vote. Jennifer Morris, chief executive officer at The Nature Conservancy, called it “a historic win for the conservation of America’s natural landscapes.”

“This bill would make major investments in the landscapes and landmarks vital to our economic, emotional and societal well-being,” she said in a statement. “By protecting important natural spaces and investing in their care, this bill will help create jobs, rebuild local economies and expand access to the outdoors that everyone has a right to enjoy.”

It is indeed a huge victory for America’s public lands, which have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel-friendly Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda. And while Gardner and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have been fierce supporters of Trump’s agenda and are relatively new to the fight to protect the LWCF, they championed the bill through the Senate and are credited with convincing the president to reverse his stance on LWCF after years of trying to gut the program’s funding.

“Today, we get one step closer to protecting our outdoor heritage for our children, our grandchildren, for future generations of Montanans and all Americans,” Daines said in a floor speech ahead of the vote.

Trump’s newfound support appears largely aimed at securing wins for two vulnerable Senate allies in the 2020 election, which could prove key to Republicans maintaining control of the Senate. Still, environmentalists and public lands advocates are celebrating the victory.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a longtime champion of the LWCF, told HuffPost last week that, although many were surprised by Trump’s reversal, it is important that Congress “seize the opportunity.”

“We will keep having the conversation about the administration’s unending attacks on conservation, our public lands and the environment more broadly,” he said.

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