House passes bipartisan public lands bill; next stop president’s desk

Devil's Island, Apostle Islands, Wis. The North shore of the Northernmost island of the Apostle Islands is pockmarked with sea caves and fascinating shapes that have been etched into the sandstone cliffs by wind and water.
Devil's Island, Apostle Islands, Wis. The North shore of the Northernmost island of the Apostle Islands is pockmarked with sea caves and fascinating shapes that have been etched into the sandstone cliffs by wind and water. (Photo by David Schroeder/Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

WASHINGTON — Major environmental legislation sailed through Congress Wednesday while the nation’s political leaders were stuck in intense negotiations over the contours of a fifth coronavirus relief package.

The bill would provide $9.5 billion over five years to pay down the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog and provide permanent funding at $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports natural areas and recreation activities. 

It was sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights giant who passed away last week. 

The U.S. House approved the bill by a vote of 310 to 107. The bill had broad bipartisan support, with 228 Democrats and 81 Republicans voting for it. Voting against were 104 Republicans, two Democrats — Reps. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Peter Visclosky of Indiana — and one Independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. 

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher voted for the bill, joining Democratic Representatives Mark Pocan, Ron Kind and Gwen Moore. Republican Representatives Glenn Grothman, Bryan Steil and Tom Tiffany voted against the bill. Rep. Jim Sensenbrener did not vote.

The U.S. Senate adopted the measure in June by a 73-25 vote, with Democatic Sen. Tammy Baldwin voting in favor and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson voting against.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk. 

“I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted in March. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

The legislation drew plaudits from environmental advocates in and outside of Congress.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called it a “huge step forward to ensuring that every community has access to nature” and a “testament to the power of grassroots activists and the enduring popularity of conservation.” 

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, called the legislation a “major win for the American people” on the House floor Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, seemed near tears as she spoke about the bill.

“This is an emotional moment for me,” she said on the floor. “The permanent full funding in this legislation is the culmination of decades of work by the conservation community and my late husband [John Dingell Jr.] and our wonderful current dean, Don Young, who first advocated for this permanent funding through the Conservation and reinvestment act in 1999.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, objected to the bill, in part because it would add $17 billion to the national debt amid a pandemic.

The legislation also drew stiff opposition from oil-state Republicans because it would draw funds from fees from oil and gas extraction on federal lands and offshore drilling activity.

In an earlier statement, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana called the legislation an “activist, thinly veiled money laundering scheme” that would “accelerate the destruction of four million acres of America’s Mississippi River Delta coastal wetlands.”

The most outspoken critic of the bill in the Senate was also from Louisiana. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, said the bill diverts money away from the Gulf, where people live, and toward national parks, where they vacation — an indication of misplaced priorities. Our country has much greater priorities, he said, “than potholes and broken toilets in national parks.”

The bill was seen as a way to boost the reelection chances of lead sponsor Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana — two of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for reelection, as rated by the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections.

Overall, eight of the nine most vulnerable GOP incumbents backed the bill. Texas’s John Cornyn was the exception.

Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonpartisan group based in Montana that advocates for conservation policies, strongly supported the bill. 

Arizona sites need more than $500 million for deferred maintenance projects, according to a 2018 National Parks Service report that pegged the national backlog at $11.9 billion.

Wisconsin currently has $13,207,514 in deferred maintenance on parks including the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ($8,739,466), the Ice Age National Scenic Trail ($607,254) and Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway ($3,860,794)

An analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated direct spending and related economic impacts of the bill would add 100,000 “job-years” to the national economy.

Polls show funding the National Park Service and the Land and Water Conservation Fund are overwhelmingly and increasingly popular. In a Pew Charitable Trusts poll last year, 82% of respondents said they wanted Congress to pay up to $1.3 billion to address the National Parks backlog, up from 76% in 2018.

Though popular, the issue may have little effect at the ballot box, said Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Voters are focused on other issues and, in a presidential election year, are likely to base their votes for Senate on their party preference at the top of the ticket, she said.

“Even in normal times, most Americans do not pay much attention to what happens inside of Congress,” Norrander wrote in an email. “[W]ith the current situation, most voters would be more concerned about COVID-19 and the economy.”

Some environmental groups are still wary of the conservation records of some of the GOP senators who voted for the bill.

“They voted right on this one, but it won’t erase their terrible environmental records,” said Hannah Blatt, the communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s political advocacy arm, EDF Action. “They have done nothing to stop the administration’s relentless attacks on our air and water.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the total amount of deferred maintenance on national parkland in Wisconsin as $427,693,898. The correct amount is $13.207.514. We regret the error.