U.S. senators are hailing a bipartisan deal, supported by President Trump after meeting with Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, to provide full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and address a major maintenance backlog in national parks.
Gardner, R-Colo., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., met last week with Trump and House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss the two measures, which are now being pursued in a single bill. On Twitter Tuesday, Trump indicated he would sign the bill and called on Congress to approve it. He also thanked Gardner and Daines and commended them for their work on the LWCF funding.
Trump’s 2021 fiscal year budget proposal calls for virtually eliminating LWCF funding. But passage of the deal he says he’s backing could deliver Gardner and Daines major legislative victories as they seek re-election this year and Republicans try to maintain majority control of the Senate.
Nevertheless, several Democratic senators joined Republican colleagues in a press conference Wednesday to praise the legislative agreement. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he didn’t care about what politics may be behind the deal.
“This needs to be done for my children, my grandchildren,” he said about getting the bill passed. “… Politics be damned, let’s just get it done.”
Gardner said, “I’m not going to try to play politics or point partisan fingers. I’m going to talk about the bipartisan success that this Congress has had.”
He cited other recent bipartisan measures that have passed to address things such as measuring outdoors-related economic output and providing funding to fight wildfires.
Gardner said that in terms of the LWCF and parks-maintenance funding, the meeting with Trump resulted in “the breakthrough that we had been looking for, but I can’t stress the bipartisan nature of this enough.”
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., congratulated Gardner and others for their work on the legislation while also noting his own efforts in support of the LWCF program over the years.
“I couldn’t be more pleased to have my name associated with this work,” he said.
The LWCF uses offshore oil and gas revenue to invest in national parks and public lands, local parks, recreation facilities, historic preservation and more. Manchin said it has benefited virtually every county in the country. In its more than 50 years in existence, though, its annual appropriations have consistently fallen short of the $900 million a year authorized for the program by Congress.
Last year, Congress permanently authorized LWCF but again didn’t fully fund it.
The bill now being pursued also would seek to provide funding to address, over five years, about half of the roughly $12 billion maintenance backlog in National Park Service facilities. Colorado National Monument’s backlog has been estimated to be about $21 million.
Manchin said 68 senators have signed on to one or both bills that now make up the combined measure.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said more than 330 House members have supported the park-maintenance funding bill.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the combined bill “will be the most significant conservation legislation enacted by Congress in at least a half a century.”
He added, “We need to acknowledge that without the president’s support this couldn’t happen.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., cited the economic benefits of public lands and added, “Somehow, somebody worked a miracle because now all of a sudden a White House who hasn’t been for land and water conservation funds — I think zeroed it out actually (in the budget proposal) — is now seeing the light, that this is a great economic investment for the future.”
Speaking Wednesday at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told Daines, “Clearly, you and Sen. Gardner were very persuasive” in the meeting with Trump.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said at that hearing about Trump’s support, “It’s almost too good to be true but we’ll take it for what it is.”
Asked about the level of support within Trump’s administration for the permanent LWCF funding, Bernhardt said, “Look, the president made his comment and I’m pretty 100% confident everybody’s getting in line.”
Bernhardt said of the new legislative package, “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for conservation in America.”
Gardner is expected to face a stiff challenge getting re-elected this fall in a state that is increasingly voting Democratic. John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor now seeking to be the Democrats’ choice to run against Gardner, said in a tweet that Gardner previously has voted to cut LWCF funding by 90% and has refused to support the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, which would protect 400,000 acres of public lands.