Congress Passed a Bipartisan Conservation Law. Then the Trump Administration Got in its Way

The partisanship poisoning Washington made it hard to imagine the sharply divided Congress coming together over anything in this year, let alone environmental legislation. And fallout from the pandemic made it seem even more unlikely that Democrats and Republicans could agree on something like spending hundreds of millions of dollars on parks and conservation.

But it did happen. Congress passed the historic Great American Outdoors Act and President Donald Trump signed it into law last summer, three months before Election Day. 

The historic law guarantees that the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund will get $900 million each year for parks and conservation. Such funding, set to begin as part of the current budget, has been a longtime goal of environmental advocates.

But the Trump administration quickly blunted advocates’ enthusiasm when it began implementing the law shortly after the election. In the advocates’ telling, the administration sabotaged the program with a skimpy project list and last-minute rules that, in effect, restrict conservation spending.

“The administration is more interested in political posturing than actually protecting and maintaining our country’s public lands and waters,” said Adam Cramer, executive director of the advocacy group, Outdoor Alliance. “Our public lands have already waited too long for the funding they direly need, and to have Interior cancel dozens of projects puts the outdoors at risk.”

Park and conservation advocates point to the Trump administration’s handling of the law as another example of its attempts to lock in its opposition to environmental protections and make the incoming Biden administration’s job harder. But in the meantime, they’re prepared to work with Congress and the incoming administration to put conservation funding back on course. 

“We want to make sure this money gets on the ground—and gets on the ground equitably,” said Amy Lindholm, who works for the Appalachian Mountain Club as a liaison to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.

The idea of protecting America’s recreation areas has been popular since Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1965. Its creation has led to billions of dollars spent, millions of acres protected and thousands of projects funded across the country—everything from monkey bars in city parks to elk habitat in the nation’s wildest landscapes.

“We often say this is the most important program you’ve never heard of,” said Lindholm.

But there have only been two times in the fund’s history that Congress actually appropriated the $900 million a year it was planned to receive. So, when protecting America’s parks and conservation lands became a significant election issue for conservative voters as well as independents and progressives, a new opportunity emerged to realize that original vision.

The environment was especially important in the West in November’s elections, with Republicans worried about losing to Democrats in the presidential race and in Congress. According to the most recent State of the Rockies report, about 80 percent of western voters reported that a candidate’s position on a healthy environment and conservation influences their decisions.

The administration had zeroed out the conservation fund in its first three budget proposals, and Republicans had allowed it to lapse in 2018 because they saw it as a “slush fund.” But, with the 2020 elections on the horizon, a pair of western Republicans at risk of losing their seats, Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, succeeded in persuading Trump to reverse course.

The fund itself was reauthorized a year ago. Then Congress approved full funding as part of the Great American Outdoors Act this year.

Under the law, conservation funding continues to be paid for with half the revenues from energy development on federal lands and waters, including oil, gas, coal and alternative or renewable energy. That amounts to a minimum $900 million to up to $1.9 billion a year for state and federal park and conservation programs.

One of the legislation’s stated goals is whittling down deferred maintenance over the next five years on federal lands overseen by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education. Another is to help pay for projects administered by state and local agencies across the country.

Earlier this year, the Land and Water Conservation Fund dedicated millions of dollars to the purchase of 35 acres of privately-owned land in the Grand Teton National Park that might otherwise have been turned over to development. The fund also helped Toledo, Ohio, transform a marsh into a 70-acre waterfront park, accessible as a nature lab and for recreation.

There are economic benefits to expenditures like this, too. The Department of Interior’s $214 million of land acquisition spending a decade ago has more than doubled its return on investment, creating about $442 million in economic activity and 3,000 jobs, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.

But the program isn’t only about hiking, hunting, habitat and mountain biking. It’s also considered an important tool to combat climate change, because conserved land often helps mitigate climatic extremes and catastrophic weather events by protecting homes and minimizing at-risk property during wildfire, hurricanes and flooding.

The Great American Outdoors Act directs 40 percent of annual appropriations to federal land purchases and projects; 40 percent to matching grants for state and local projects that protect water sources, forests and battlefields; and 20 percent for discretionary purposes.

The law required the White House to submit its first proposed project list on Nov. 2, the day before the election. But the Trump Interior Department missed that deadline and gave its list to Congress a week late, with spending proposals that fell far short of the $900 million the Great American Outdoors Act requires.

“The administration has utterly blown its shot at implementing this historic conservation and recreation law,” said Drew McConville of The Wilderness Society and a spokesperson for the Land and Water Fund Coalition, which has more than 1,000 members.

Snow Canyon State Park in Utah has benefitted from one of more than 40,000 grants under a popular Land and Water Conservation Fund program that matches state and local funds. Most years, Congress only provides partial appropriations. The Great American Outdoors Act enacted last summer now guarantees $900 million each year. Credit: Judy Fahys/Inside Climate News

For example, the Trump Interior Department failed to include any of the projects that had been proposed for New Mexico in the 2021 appropriations plan, according to High Country News. And in Montana, the administration snubbed requests for $13.3 million to improve access in the Blackfoot River watershed and at the Lower Musselshell River.

“We were incredibly disappointed,” said Whitney Tawney, deputy director of Montana Conservation Voters.

Like many others, Tawney now sees Republican support for the Great American Outdoors Act as “an election ploy,” rather than genuine support for preserving the landscapes cherished in outdoor-minded states like Montana.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, demanding a proper project list and noting that the administration was putting projects in jeopardy. 

“The clock is ticking,” Tester wrote, “and the public needs to know it can count on the Department and Forest Service to be reliable partners in protecting our most important landscapes.”

The same day Bernhardt shared his department’s priority list, he also issued a secretarial order that imposed new requirements for spending Great American Outdoors Act money.

“These actions ensure land acquisitions will increase recreation opportunities, enhance conservation benefits and provide flexibility to our partners in states and local communities to ensure this investment is managed and allocated in the best possible manner,” Bernhardt said in a news release.

The directive included Republican ideas that had been offered as amendments to the legislation as it was being debated but were rejected, including a requirement that state and local officials sign off on land acquisitions between private sellers and federal agencies. Conservation groups blasted that requirement for interfering with private property rights, but a few politically conservative groups praised Bernhardt’s approach, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council.

“Ranchers appreciate Secretary Bernhardt’s work to make certain LWCF cannot be used as a tool for rampant, unchecked acquisitions that would compromise the health of Western landscapes and federal agencies’ ability to manage the lands and waters already under their purview,” said Kaitlynn Glover, a leader in both organizations.

Conservation groups panned Berhnardt’s directive as “a poison pill,” “vindictive” and “sabotage.” They predicted that the secretarial order doomed many projects because, among other things, matching funds would expire, and state and local authorities would nix federal-private purchases they didn’t like.

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, called the local signoff provision in Bernhardt’s order a “blatant attack on private property rights [that] effectively gives state and local governments veto power over willing landowners seeking to sell their property at market rates.”

House Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, whose committee oversees the Interior Department, told E&E News that the Trump administration had no interest in conservation. “They’re just trying to smash and grab whatever they can on their way out the door,” Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said, “when they should focus on working with the Biden transition team.”

The Center for Biological Diversity said Bernhardt’s order undermined the fund’s primary purpose of acquiring conservation lands. 

“It’s a vindictive, illegal parting shot from a corrupt administration that only approved this bill to give political cover to two Senate Republicans, whose re-elections were in jeopardy,” said Randi Spivak, the group’s public lands director. 

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks accused Bernhardt of acting in “bad faith” and putting crucial opportunities to protect critical watersheds, viewsheds and ecosystems at risk. Coalition chairman Phil Francis estimated the National Park Service’s land acquisition backlog at $5 billion following years of being underfunded.

“We encourage Congress to finish its work on fiscal year 2021 Land and Water Conservation Fund spending without regard to DOI’s inappropriate attempt to rewrite this incredibly popular and successful program,” he said.

With ultimate authority over federal spending, Congress has already begun revising the administration’s implementation plan for the Great American Outdoors Act. The Republican-led Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee cobbled together its own conservation project list that includes full funding to cover many of the projects the administration snubbed.

Meanwhile, the incoming Biden administration has already put climate change and environmental quality at the top of its agenda. It’s one reason Lindholm said she’s ultimately hopeful about the appetite for protecting the parks and landscapes that Americans love. Conservation is that unusual political issue that genuinely brings people together, she added.

“There are so many contentious issues, but this isn’t one of them.”

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