Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s job defending his department’s fiscal 2021 budget request on Wednesday was made a lot easier after President Donald Trump announced he would support full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In a tweet Tuesday afternoon, Trump said he would support legislation to fund LWCF at $900 million and address longstanding maintenance issues at national parks.
His budget proposal includes only $14.7 million in discretionary funding for LWCF, down from about $495 million for the current fiscal year.
“Why’d he change his mind?” Montana Democrat and LWCF supporter Jon Tester asked Bernhardt at a hearing of the Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.
Bernhardt replied, “Look, the president makes a decision, and this is one that he felt was very important and he did it.”
He also, however, called it “a tremendous opportunity for conservation in America,” adding, “We should seize the day, sir.”
Two Republican senators who are up for re-election this year, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, took credit for persuading Trump. The two issued a news release late Tuesday saying they had “secured President Donald Trump’s support for legislation to provide full and permanent funding for the [LWCF] and address the $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks.”
The LWCF funds federal land acquisition and provides matching grants to help states expand their outdoor recreation opportunities. It also funds other natural resources-related programs in the federal government.
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Bills to fully fund LWCF and address the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in November. Both were placed on the Senate’s legislative calendar Feb. 25.
Daines urged Bernhardt to continue working toward removing Endangered Species Act protections for the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone area.
"It is a great success story what’s happened with the grizzly bear," Daines told Bernhardt. But Daines said livestock losses from grizzlies "are skyrocketing off the chart,” creating “an issue for our ag industry.”
"We should celebrate the success and return management to Montana," Daines said. Bernhardt pledged to work with the senator and said the Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing guidance on the matter.
The subcommittee's top Democrat, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen went after Bernhardt on climate change and migratory birds.
Udall accused the Trump administration of abandoning efforts to fight climate change. “The president’s vision is moving us backward at a time when we can least afford it,” he said.
Bernhardt, however, staunchly defended Trump. “The president’s vision is moving us forward, not backward,” he said. “He is willing to lean in when facing headwinds.”
He also said of his department, “We regularly comment on climate — we regularly comment on the fact that the climate is changing.”
Van Hollen and Bernhardt tussled verbally over proposed changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that have been heavily criticized by conservation groups. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal would prohibit only intentional — not incidental — injury to birds, which Van Hollen said would have made it impossible to recover $100 million from BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill.
But Bernhardt said the proposal is consistent with the opinion of three federal circuit courts of appeals and said he would meet with Van Hollen any time to discuss how to change the law.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, mostly discussed issues specific to her state but also said she wanted more information on how the president’s budget “prepares us for science.”
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