The House easily passed legislation Wednesday to establish permanent funding for a broadly popular land conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, leaping past objections from oil-state members and pleasing environmental groups, the Interior Secretary and at-risk Republican senators.
Passage marks a boon for Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., both locked in competitive reelection campaigns in their home states, who have pointed to the bill as a bipartisan measure with benefits for their constituents.
President Donald Trump, whom the pair of GOP senators nudged to support the bill at a White House meeting by showing him pictures of beautiful national park landscapes, is expected to sign the bill.
The final tally was 310-107, with more than 80 Republicans joining nearly every Democrat to vote “aye.”
The bill would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal pool of money raised largely from fees and royalties on offshore oil and gas drilling, with $900 million annually. It would also allocate $9.5 billion over five years for the Interior Department to clear some of its backlog of maintenance, including at National Park Service sites.
A rare piece of environmental legislation with widespread bipartisan backing, the bill would direct money to five federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Within the backlog fund, the legislation would allocate 70 percent to NPS projects and 15 percent to the Forest Service. States can apply for grants from the LWCF for outdoor recreation projects, like parks, refuges and other public lands.
The Senate passed the bill June 17, 73-25, with opposition from Gulf Coast Republicans including Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and other critics of federal land powers in their state, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt cheered the vote in a statement, criticizing previous presidents and praising Trump.
“In March, President Trump called on Congress to stop kicking the can down the road, fix the aging infrastructure at our national parks and permanently fund conservation projects through the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Bernhardt said. “He accomplished what previous presidents have failed to do for decades, despite their lip service commitment to funding public land improvements.”
In the chamber’s well Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the top ranking Republican on the natural resources committee, led the opposition to the bill, along with Rep. Garret Graves, R-La.
On the chamber floor before passage, Bishop and Graves noted money that flows into the LWCF comes from royalties on oil and gas drilling — a revenue source that has shrunk during the COVID-19 pandemic and drop in oil prices this spring.
“There are questions about the future source of funding,” Bishop said, adding that the No. 2 source of federal dollars that go to the U.S. Treasury is from fossil fuel royalties.
Bishop cited a Congressional Research Service report that found royalties from onshore oil and gas extraction dropped more than 80 percent in May, versus the same period of 2019.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, replied by pointing to the “overwhelming” bipartisan Senate support, adding, “This legislation is not about denying coastal states their share.”
In a campaign ad released Tuesday, Gardner notes Congress has taken money from the LWCF for unrelated projects for decades, taking credit for making the funding permanent.
“It took a new generation, one looking out for the next generation,” Gardner says in the commercial.
In a cued-up video released after the House voted, Gardner thanked Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a fellow co-sponsor of the Senate version.
“By fixing and repairing our public lands and National Parks, we not only have the chance to improve the roads, hiking trails, campsites and visitor centers for generations to enjoy, but also to create thousands of job opportunities in Colorado and across the nation at a time when our country needs them most,” Gardner said.
“Today, we get one step closer to protecting our outdoor heritage for our children, and grandchildren,” said Daines, “for future generations of Montanans and for all Americans.”
Conservation groups have pushed for full, locked-in funding of the LWCF for years. Environment America even sent LCWF-themed face masks to every member of Congress, including Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., who wore his before voting to pass the bill.
“This historic legislation will support millions of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity, including the outdoor recreation and tourism industries that drive our local economy,” Levin said. “We’re also taking another important step forward in our fight against the climate crisis by conserving currently unprotected natural resources across the country and protecting vital ecosystems.”
Members in swing districts, including Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., applauded the vote, as did the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful conservative business lobby.
“Today the House fulfilled a commitment that was made to the American people 55 years ago to permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group generally critical of the Trump administration, said in a statement. “We look forward to the president quickly signing this historic legislation into law.”