Congress Sends Landmark Conservation Bill to Trump

WASHINGTON — The nation’s conservation community achieved a longstanding goal Wednesday when the House passed and sent to President Trump a measure that for the first time guarantees maximum annual funding for the premiere federal program to acquire and preserve land for public use.

Fueled by election-year politics, the legislation was easily approved on a bipartisan 310-to-107 vote. It would allocate $900 million each year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund while also providing up to $9.5 billion over five years to begin clearing up a mounting maintenance backlog at national parks.

Conservation leaders hailed the measure as a landmark achievement. They said it would protect and expand access to public lands at a time when Americans are gaining in appreciation for outdoor activities because of the pandemic, while providing tens of thousands of jobs in tourism-dependent communities that have seen their economies suffer because of reduced travel.

“Passing the Great American Outdoors Act is quite simply the most significant investment in conservation in decades,” said Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s a huge win for wildlife, our national treasures, our economy and all Americans who enjoy our public lands for solace, recreation and exercise, especially amid this pandemic.”

Established in 1964, the fund is supposed to distribute revenues from oil and gas drilling royalties paid to the government for public land improvement as well as acquisition from willing sellers. But Congress has regularly siphoned money away from it, shortchanging the efforts. The fund was made permanent last year, but the legislation approved Wednesday was viewed as a critical final step to assure its full allotment of dollars.

“This act provides critical support for longstanding efforts to protect the public lands, restore public places to be safer and more enjoyable, and increase access to nature for all communities,” said Jennifer Morris, the chief executive officer of the Nature Conservancy. “This commitment to conservation will pay economic, health and society dividends for generations to come.”

The legislation benefited from a unique confluence of political factors that made its approval possible. Some Western lawmakers have consistently opposed fully funding the measure, arguing that it would encourage the government to acquire more private property in their states when federal holdings are already too extensive.

“Increasing the federal real estate holdings should not be on anyone’s to-do list,” said Representative Kevin Hern, Republican of Oklahoma, who said the bill ceded too much power to political appointees and the bureaucracy.

Other critics complained about the impact on the deficit, and the Trump administration budget plan earlier this year was to eliminate spending on the program altogether.

But two Senate Republicans from the West facing tough re-election fights — Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana — seized on the measure as beneficial both for their states and for their election prospects, and won the backing of their Senate leadership. Combined with near-universal support from Democrats, the Republican backing provided strong momentum for the legislation.

The turning point came this year when Mr. Daines and Mr. Gardner visited the White House and persuaded the president that signing the measure would provide him with a significant conservation legacy. Mr. Trump agreed on the spot to sign the bill if it reached his desk despite his administration’s budget policy to slash the funding. It passed the Senate on a 73-to-25 vote in mid-June.

One of Mr. Gardner’s first campaign commercials subsequently featured him and his family packing their car for a camping trip and credited him with writing what it called “Gardner’s law” supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund. “Let’s get outside,” Mr. Gardner says in concluding the ad.

Mr. Trump renewed his full-throated endorsement Wednesday, thanking Mr. Gardner and Mr. Daines on Twitter for their efforts on this “HISTORIC BILL!”

“We MUST protect our National Parks for our children and grandchildren,” he wrote.

Some environmental activists privately cringed over the political benefits the measure could bring to the two Republican senators, who oppose many of their other stances, but they welcomed the opportunity to secure guaranteed money for the program.

“It is time that we honor our promises,” Representative Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, the chief Democratic sponsor of the legislation in the House, said Wednesday.

Some House Republicans from the West fought the measure, portraying the legislation as a badly flawed federal land grab that could end up costing taxpayers money if energy production slowed by the pandemic does not produce the $900 million in annual funding that will be mandatory under the legislation.

Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the senior Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, was adamantly opposed and referred to the legislation as the “not-so-great American Outdoors Act.”

“This bill is not about funding our public lands,” Mr. Bishop said. “The only thing this is about is how we can find another way to buy more property. We can’t afford the property we already have.”

But Mr. Bishop was clearly fighting a losing battle. Member after member of his own party joined Democrats in trooping to the floor to embrace the legislation, eager to demonstrate to voters back home that they were securing money for park and recreation projects that are increasingly popular in light of the pandemic.

In the end, 81 Republicans joined 229 Democrats in supporting a rare bipartisan piece of legislation certain to be quickly celebrated in a signing ceremony at the White House.

http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js