The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan, landmark bill to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which taps oil and gas revenue to pay for acquiring new federal lands.
The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed 73-25, needs a final vote in the House before going to President Donald Trump for his signature.
The measure would guarantee the fund $900 million each year and also provide $1.9 billion a year over the next five years for maintaining public lands. Critics of providing long-term funding for the LWCF argue that maintenance needs should take precedent over acquiring new lands.
Groups representing cattle and sheep producers opposed the bill but found no Democratic support, and 28 of the Senate's 53 Republicans voted for the legislation. The bill’s cosponsors included Republicans Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, both of whom face tough reelection races this year.
The producer groups argued the bill would guarantee at least $360 million a year for purchasing new federal land at a time when the government can’t maintain the land it has. “If passed, the GAO Act sentences hundreds of millions of acres of American land and water to a poorly-managed future,” the groups said in a letter to Senate leaders.
Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Wednesday that mandating funding for the LWCF would sentence “existing and future lands and waters to the same fate facing current federal assets — billions of dollars in deferred maintenances. Today is indeed a landmark day — with this legislation, Congress has abdicated their responsibility and privilege to engage in these important conservation decision.”
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But Daines, speaking on the Senate floor ahead of the vote, said the bill would “protect the program and provide some certainty for our land managers, for conservationists, for sports men and women.” He said the bill would address a $12 billion maintenance backlog in the national parks, including $700 million in the Glacier and Yellowstone parks alone.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the LWCF had funded the acquisition of 5 million acres across the nation since its inception in the 1960s.
Passing the Great American Outdoors Act sends the message that the Senate “really believes that open space is a great driver of our economy, but more importantly an essential part of American life, and we’re going to continue to invest in it," she said.
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