When former Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, became the law of the land last summer, it was hailed as the “holy grail” of the conservation movement.
The GAOA ensures permanent and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That’s $900 million a year, derived from offshore oil and gas royalties, to pay for things such as protecting public lands, conserving wildlife habitat and improving access to outdoor recreation. The GAOA also provides money to start addressing the maintenance backlog at national parks.
But the warm and fuzzy feelings surrounding passage of the bill didn’t last long. After Election Day, former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt made changes to the LWCF that conservation and outdoors groups say undermined the program.
Some Republicans were taken aback by Bernhardt’s action, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who along with Gardner carried the Great American Outdoors Act.
As the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported last week, a bipartisan group of 90 members of Congress wrote to Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega on Feb. 17 in support of reversing LWCF directives issued by Bernhardt.
The next day, de la Vega did just that.
The upshot is that the LWCF is unencumbered and able to deliver as sold to the American public under the GAOA.
In a press release, Interior said that Bernhardt’s order “unilaterally imposed new restrictions to inhibit the availability of LWCF funding for federal land and water acquisitions.”
Among other things, Bernhardt’s November order prioritized land acquisitions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Critics said it all but eliminated funding under the program for Bureau of Land Management acquisitions.
Bernhardt’s order also limited land acquisitions within the Interior Department to private inholdings within existing boundaries of agency properties. And it required support from the pertinent governor and local county for any federal acquisition — effectively giving them veto power.
Interior also reversed an action Bernhardt took in January by reinstating the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership program — the only LWCF competitive grant program dedicated to addressing the recreational opportunity gap, mostly in underserved urban areas.
We’re never fans of presidential administrations whipsawing between policy extremes, but in this case the Biden administration seemed focused on ensuring that the LWCF functions as intended.
That should come as a relief to Gardner. Bernhardt’s actions reduced Gardner’s landmark bill to an election-year stunt. But now, with a fully actualized LWCF making good on its immense promise to improve access to nature and the great outdoors, Gardner can be remembered for helping bring it to reality.