with Paulina Firozi
The Senate approved a bill that would funnel billions of dollars to fixing roads, trails and other infrastructure in national parks and on other public lands, as well as expanding their size.
Backers of the bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act, hailed it as one of the most significant pieces of conservation legislation in decades. It is also a bit of bipartisan lawmaking that has become rare in an increasingly polarized Washington.
“People are accustomed to politicians exaggerating,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the bill’s backers, told reporters Wednesday. But, he added, “the action that the Senate today is the most significant step to being good stewards of our great outdoors that has been taken in at least a half a century.”
The bill cleared the GOP-controlled chamber, which was the bill’s biggest hurdle, by a 73-to-25 margin. The measure is now likely to become law.
The bill would accomplish two long-sought goals of conservationists.
The package would create a new, $9.5 billion pool of money to address a backlog of maintenance work at national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.
The National Park Service, the main beneficiary of the new restoration fund, says it has a nearly $12 billion list of leaking pipes, potholed roads and other work that needs to be done. The bill authorizes the new program for five years.
The legislation would also put $900 million a year into the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That popular but perennially starved-for-cash program helps pay for everything from adding to vast wilderness areas to building neighborhood baseball diamonds.
Both programs are paid for through the royalties the government collects on oil and gas drilling operations on federal lands and waters.
It was only a year ago when reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapsed during the partial government shutdown.
Land Tawney, head of the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said that neglect by Congress spurred sportsmen in his organization and elsewhere to press lawmakers to fully fund the program.
“The sunset galvanized the grass roots,” he said.
The 2020 election — and two vulnerable GOP senators — really got the ball rolling on the bill.
Congressional Democrats have long supported full funding for the LWCF. But the public lands package got traction in Congress, even as the country is gripped by both the coronavirus pandemic and protests over police brutality, due in large part to the upcoming election.
Two of the bill’s sponsors, Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), successfully pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to give the bill floor time — and they helped convince President Trump to promise to sign it should it reach his desk.
Both were eager to notch legislative victories because they are up for…
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