PHOENIX – Senators broke into applause as they gave overwhelming approval to a bill allocating up to $1.9 billion a year for public lands acquisition and national park maintenance, a measure advocates said is “55 years overdue.”
The Great American Outdoors Act would fund up to $1 billion a year in repairs at national parks, which have compiled an almost $12 billion maintenance backlog over the years. The bill would also guarantee $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, used by state and local governments for parks and public land acquisitions.
“It is the most significant piece of conservation legislation that Congress has passed in 50 years or more,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, said during debate last week on the bill.
Critics said the bill would increase the national debt for questionable spending, considering COVID-19 and other challenges the country faces. But those arguments appeared to carry little weight with senators who voted 73-25 for the bipartisan bill.
Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, and Martha McSally, a Republican, both co-sponsored and voted for the bill, which passed the Senate on Wednesday.
The bill must still go back to the House, where final approval is expected. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill, after tweeting in March that it will be “HISTORIC” when “I sign it into law.”
Despite its bipartisan backing and support from hundreds of groups, the push for the bill has been going on for years.
“Today we celebrate an important milestone that is 55 years overdue,” said a statement from Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. “We look forward to the bill getting quick consideration in the House, so the president can sign it into law.”
It was in 1964 that Congress first approved the LWCF, which dedicates revenue from offshore oil and gas leases to parks and public lands. Over those five decades, the fund has collected a total of $40.9 billion, of which $235 million has been spent in Arizona on projects ranging from the Grand Canyon to the Lost Dutchman State Park.
Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he is “very enthusiastic about the bill and its prospects.”
“This bill will make it (LWCF) permanently funded at the right level,” he said, noting that the annual appropriations process made it “impossible to know how much money is available” under the program before.
The previous allocation process also allowed funds in the LWCF to be diverted to projects other than wildlife and environmental programs, supporters of the bill said.
The bill also creates a dedicated fund for maintenance of national parks. The National Park Service estimated in September 2018 that deferred maintenance in all national parks totaled nearly $12 billion, with $507 million of that backlogged work in Arizona. The Grand Canyon National Park alone needed more than $313 million in work, the park service said.
Supporters said the work is badly needed.
“It’s not about painting a building, it’s about fixing leaky pipes that are wasting precious water at some of our parks,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “That’s the kind of thing that can have a real impact.”
It’s unclear when the House will take up the bill for final approval, but a spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee said it is expected to approve the bill without amendments. Committee chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, tweeted Wednesday that it is time to “permanently #FundLWCF” after what he said were decades of trying.
But critics in the Senate argued that the time was wrong. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, an ardent opponent of the bill, said it is hard to support a public lands bill that does not provide support for coastal cities and receding shorelines in the South.
“It spends billions on where people vacation, but absolutely nothing on where people live,” Cassidy said. “It sends the final message to the American people that the Senate cares more about parks than it does about people.”
Cassidy said the bill takes money from the Treasury and benefits few states. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, agreed during a floor debate, saying the bill will add $17 billion to the national deficit over the next 10 years.
But Gardner, one of the bill’s 59 co-sponsors, said funding national parks is important, and that the bill could lead to the creation of 100,000 jobs in the first year.
Dahl agreed that approval of the bill comes with great timing, as national and state parks will benefit from the “very much needed” infrastructure projects that will help the economy rebound. And, Bahr said, the benefits are not just economic.
“There’s a huge backlog in maintenance for the parks and if we don’t care for those resources, they are not going to be here for our kids and their kids to enjoy,” Bahr said.