Lands package reaches Senate floor. Now comes the hard part

Conservation advocates have been working for months to build a coalition capable of pushing a multimillion-dollar public lands package over the finish line. They anticipate seeing the culmination of these efforts in the coming days.

Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to officially schedule S. 3422, the “Great American Outdoors Act,” for floor consideration next week (E&E Daily, June 1).

The bill would permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time since its creation in 1964 — $900 million annually, paid for by offshore oil and gas lease revenue.

The legislation would also form a five-year trust fund to reduce the current $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog at parks and other public lands, including those managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education.

Now, lawmakers and lobbyists are scrambling to make sure the measure does, in fact, have the votes to pass. It continues to be a delicate balancing act for all those involved.

“I know we have 59 co-sponsors,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a lead sponsor of the bill, said this week. “Fifty-nine doesn’t pass. That’s one short.”

Manchin and Democrats are contending with colleagues, including those in their own party, who want assurances their home states won’t get shortchanged in the final bill — and may insist on votes on amendments that could derail the entire legislative package.

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to grow their ranks of co-sponsors beyond the current 15 to prove this is truly a GOP-led effort, not a victory carried by Democrats.

That task will involve converting longtime skeptics of the LWCF as well as those who want congressional appropriators to continue to have discretion to set program funding levels.

All this is being done against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic and economic crisis. It will be up to the legislation’s champions to make the case that now is the time to act.

Economic message

Democrats and Republicans are both planning to present the “Great American Outdoors Act” as a job creator and economy booster as they work to build support for the bill on and off Capitol Hill.

It’s not a new argument that pouring money into the upkeep of national parks and public lands directly creates job opportunities and indirectly stimulates local economies that benefit from visitors seeing outdoor recreation.

Advocates do, however, hope the talking point now takes on some new resonance amid the coronavirus crisis, during which more than 40 million people have lost their jobs and the tourism industry has ground to a halt, even as Americans are increasingly turning to outdoor spaces as a means of social distancing.

“The economic argument has always been there,” said Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, who worked at the Interior Department in the Obama administration. “Now we are in a place where people are looking for it, are ready to hear it.”

Manchin told E&E News yesterday that he wasn’t planning on making the economic message at the expense of highlighting the importance of conservation.

“We haven’t backed off the strict conservation,” Manchin explained. “But when you look at what we’re in right now with the economic downturn, there’s not a better time. We all talk about infrastructure. There’s never been a time when we’ve recovered from an economic downturn that infrastructure hasn’t played a prominent part.”

He continued, “The ‘Great American Outdoors Act,’ with so much good in it, maybe 20,000 to 30,000 jobs can be created, and we can start something that we can continue to maintain. I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

On the Republican side, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has especially hammered down on the economic argument.

In late May, he threatened to prevent the Senate from going into recess unless his colleagues agreed to seriously discuss another coronavirus recovery package.

To appease him, McConnell agreed to schedule a vote on the “Great American Outdoors Act,” which Gardner has been working to pass in various iterations for years.

Gardner, who also faces a competitive Democratic challenger this fall, proclaimed that this compromise would do as much for Coloradans as any broad stimulus bill.

“Our mountain towns were hit hard by COVID-19,” said Gardner in a statement last month. “The ski season ended early, restaurants closed, and hotels emptied. Now is the time to pass this bill that will provide billions of dollars in funding for new jobs across Colorado and the country while protecting our public lands.”

Whip effort

At this point, the bulk of the vote whipping efforts are being directed at Republicans.

There’s hope that GOP lawmakers who are irked by efforts to predetermine a set level of funding for LWCF each year could be convinced to support the “Great American Outdoors Act” because of the benefits it would have to their states’ economic recoveries.

Such members include Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, who is currently “reviewing the bill,” according to spokeswoman Grace Jang.

There also is a push to sell holdouts on the portion of the lands bill that addresses the $20 billion backlog — the least controversial element of the two-pronged package.

“The maintenance backlog and the ability to address and help to preserve and protect our national heritage — we’ve really focused on that,” said Robert Dillon of ConservAmerica, regarding the organization’s conversations with Republican lawmakers. Dillon used to be a top Murkowski spokesman.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), another lead sponsor who is also in a tough race this November, told E&E News yesterday that he has been working hard to educate his colleagues, in part by dispelling myths and rhetoric.

That includes confronting colleagues in the Senate Western Caucus, where many members of the leadership team oppose LWCF and, by extension, the “Great American Outdoors Act.” Daines is the caucus’s chairman.

“One of the criticisms I hear is that this is a federal land grab. That’s what I hear,” said Daines. “And that, I think, when you look at the facts, that’s not an accurate assessment.”

Daines said, “Second, it enhances and provides better access to existing public lands by allowing willing — willing — landowners to use the funds here to provide better access. So it’s really about stewardship of our existing public lands.”

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, in an interview with E&E News said he wants major reforms to LWCF.

“In Arizona, there have been tons of land gobbled up and we have had a hard time paying for our schools because we don’t have the luxury, like Rhode Island does, with state-owned or privately opened property which is taxable or their schools,” he said. “There’s gotta be a happy medium here.”

Gosar also scoffed at Democrats supporting a program that would be offset by offshore oil and gas lease revenues, saying Democrats were working hard to end this practice and ultimately wanted the $900 million annual payments to LWCF either unpaid for or covered by a wealth tax.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy here,” he said.

Road ahead

It’s not yet clear whether Gosar and other Western Caucus leaders in the House will successfully be able to enlist colleagues to take up their case in the Senate.

A potential Republican opponent of the lands package is Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who at a hearing on the LWFC last year quipped that the program should be renamed “the Land and Water Acquisition Fund” (E&E Daily, June 26).

Barrasso, however, is also a member of Senate Republican leadership, so it’s unclear how hard he would push, given that this is a major priority for McConnell and that President Trump has also given the bill his blessing. Barrasso’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) was highly critical of LWCF at the same hearing last summer. Lee’s spokesman, Conn Carroll, said the senator’s position has not changed but would not say whether Lee plans to offer amendments to address his concerns.

Daines said bill sponsors were working with McConnell’s office to make sure the “Great American Outdoors Act” is not opened up to an amendment process that could delay passage or derail the entire effort.

Earlier yesterday, he said he was feeling confident that the chamber could pass a “clean” bill next week, with lawmakers still raw over the collapse of a broad energy package that collapsed earlier this year under the weight of controversial amendments (E&E Daily, March 11).

But by yesterday evening, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who helped sink the energy bill over a climate-related amendment, said yesterday that he was introducing an amendment to the “Great American Outdoors Act” related to the fraught issue of offshore drilling royalties.

Gulf Coast lawmakers have long complained about not getting 50% of drilling revenue and, on top of that, having the money capped. They also grumble at so much of the money being set aside for LWCF under the legislation.

“All we’re saying is, let’s be a little fair here,” Kennedy said on the Senate floor yesterday, proposing to scrap the cap. “My little old amendment would just remove that cap and make the ‘Great American Outdoors Act’ even greater.”

Democrats could also present a complication. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement to E&E News yesterday that coastal states felt as neglected by LWFC as did Western states, and suggested he was not inclined to support the “Great American Outdoors Act” without changes.

“LWCF has long favored inland states and upland projects. Sadly there is no program for coasts and saltwater to balance the dominance of upland and freshwater in LWCF,” Whitehouse said. “Our coastal features, populations and economies deserve a fairer shake, so I’d love to balance this bill with more coastal support.”