Cheney next to vote on Great American Outdoors Act, park funds - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Cheney next to vote on Great American Outdoors Act, park funds

In 2017 Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk shows Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke a dilapidated trailer at Mammoth during a tour of the world’s first national park. Among the challenges the National Park Service faces is a maintenance backlog of $12 billion nationwide. (Department of the Interior)

July 7, 2020 by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney is the next member of the Wyoming delegation to face a bill to permanently fund a program that brought $23 million to Wyoming schools in 2016, a bill her Senate colleagues opposed.

The Great American Outdoors Act would permanently and fully fund and spend $900 million annually from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund has brought $132 million of federal oil and gas revenues to Wyoming over the course of 55 years. In a separate provision, the act also sets up five years’ of funding — $6.5 billion — for a backlog of national park maintenance.

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The bill passed the Senate 73-25 June 17 despite no votes from Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso. They and other opponents worry that the bill gives Washington, D.C. too much authority and increases the national debt, among other things. The U.S. House expects to address the bill this summer and the president has tweeted that he will sign it. 

Barrasso and Enzi’s votes were “disappointing,” John Garder, the National Parks Conservation Association’s senior director of budget and appropriations, told WyoFile. “Given the outstanding values of national parks in Wyoming and the disrepair in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and the other park units in the state,” he said, “we hope Congresswoman Cheney will recognize the importance of this bill and vote in support.”

Cheney’s office has not responded to WyoFile regarding her position on the Great American Outdoors Act. The Republican has revealed some of her thinking on similar legislation, however, voting against two conservation-funding bills in 2019 that came before the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Cheney’s no vote during the committee’s passage of the Restore our Parks and Public Lands Act came in a lopsided 36-2 vote that advanced the measure. Now apparently sidelined, it would have provided park maintenance funding. 

She also voted against the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, which passed the committee 21-13. In commenting to the Powell Tribune on the conservation fund in early 2019, she said she wanted to stop increasing federal land holdings.

$23 million for Wyoming schools

Wyoming’s U.S. senators voted against the Great American Outdoors Act even though the LWCF in 2016 paid $23 million to fund Wyoming schools. It also has contributed $132 million since 1964 to myriad parks and recreation projects across the state, including funding ball parks, state campgrounds and other outdoor projects.

Conservationists have widely hailed the bill’s passage. Enzi and Barrasso underscored the measure’s shortcomings.

The act, in its parks-maintenance provision, provides national parks with “only a one-time fix that is neither responsible nor permanent,” Enzi said in a Senate floor speech published on his website. It adds more than $17 billion to the country’s national debt, he said.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso in 2009 celebrates a path built in Grand Teton National Park. (Tim Young/Wyoming Pathways)

While Enzi focused on national parks funding, Barrasso found the elements of the bill pertaining to federal land management troubling. Though he supports the LWCF, Barrasso said in a statement to WyoFile, “the program funding shifted from being locally focused to being primarily Washington focused.” The bill gives Washington, D.C. the authority to buy private land in Wyoming when “we can’t afford to maintain the public lands we already own,” he said.

The act would generate funds from half of all receipts from energy development on federal lands and waters, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in an op-ed published in The Hill. The measure would earmark up to $1.9 billion a year, he wrote, and is “one of the few pieces of bipartisan legislation that Congress is actively considering.”

Park infrastructure is $12 billion behind, he wrote, yet deserves to be better. The LWCF, Bernhardt wrote, “leverages public and private dollars to help state and local governments create and improve parks, trails, and other recreation areas.” 

Two Republican senators running for reelection — Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana — are among the co-sponsors of the Senate legislation. The act’s passage in the Senate “comes at an opportune time” for the “two of the chamber’s most at-risk Republicans,” E&E News wrote. The report noted the widespread media attention given to rare bipartisan legislation, and wondered whether the high-profile vote would give Gardner and Daines a boost. Their races are considered by many to be instrumental in the battle for control of the Senate in the 2020 general election.

The act would make permanent some $900 million a year in contributions to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of money that was authorized more than five decades ago. But Congress hasn’t lived up to the vision of the legislation, failing to appropriate the full annual collection of fees.

Last year, advocates say, lawmakers appropriated only $495 million from the $900-million annual collection. Under the Great American Outdoors Act, the fund would become permanent and all the money would have to be appropriated annually. The parks’ backlog provision would provide an additional $6.5 billion over five years.

A ‘no-brainer’

Conservationists have embraced the measure, a “no brainer,” according to Jayson O’Neill, Western Values Project director. “It’s unconscionable that it took this long,” he said in a statement, while criticizing the Trump administration.

“This one act by no means makes up for an administration that has the worst public lands record in history,” his statement for the Montana-based watchdog nonprofit reads.

Senate passage “demonstrates that politicians recognize the importance voters across the country place on protecting public lands for future generations,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement. Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called the bill’s Senate passage “a truly historic conservation victory.”

The act’s timing, coming in the face of job losses and Americans sheltered at home, is especially important, many believe. The act “can help sustain gateway communities and small businesses that are dependent on park tourism,” Marcia Argust, a project director with the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in a statement. The act will add jobs and ensure access to recreation opportunities, her statement read.

The $132 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund money spent over more than five decades in Wyoming includes $88 million spent on federal projects in 13 locations ranging from Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area to Fossil Butte National Monument to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Another $9 million went to the Forest Legacy Program, a federal-private partnership to preserve forests on private property. Fully $710,000 went to habitat conservation that aims to protect imperiled species, and $34.5 million went to state and local programs, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.

The local and state grants — money passed through the National Park Service — have funded everything from a $1,746 in improvements to Laramie’s Harbon Park in 1966 to $124,198 in playground construction in Glendo and Guernsey state parks in 2010, according to a databasecompiled by Investigate West. Projects cover everything from installing lighting at city ballparks to building tennis courts and paths.

Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails administers the pass-through grants, requiring a contribution of 50% from local entities like school districts, cities and towns. The facilities the program aids must be accessible to the public.

Barrasso objected to elements of the fund being used to acquire federal land, including private land inside national parks. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been guided since 1916 by the Park Service’s Organic Act, which recognizes that acquisitions “protect resources and provide for visitor use and enjoyment.” The work, the agency says, “is done in cooperation with States, local governments, nonprofit organizations and property owners to provide various forms of protection.”

$23 million to Wyoming schools

A recent high-profile use of the funds occurred in the 2016 purchase of a Wyoming State School Trust section inside Grand Teton National Park. The federal government gave the 640 acres to Wyoming at statehood, requiring it to be used to fund education and some institutions. The section just north of Blacktail Butte lies adjacent to the park’s most traveled road and smack-dab in front of the Grand Teton, Wyoming’s — arguably America’s — most iconic peak.

Wildlife use the scenic property, including pronghorn antelope that migrate along the “Path of the Pronghorn” — from the park to southern wintering grounds in Sublette County and beyond. Creation of the Jackson Hole Monument in 1943 included the Wyoming school trust land inside the boundaries of the federal reserve. Congress incorporated the reserve into Grand Teton National Park in 1950, though ownership of school trust land did not change.

From fragile nighthawk eggs to views of the rugged summit of the Grand Teton, this 640-acre state school trust parcel near Kelly in Grand Teton National Park holds significant natural resource values. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming could have put the land on the block for development. After an appraisal, it sold it to the federal government for $46 million. Half the funds came from the Land and Water Conservation. The nonprofit Grand Teton National Park Foundation raised the other $23 million in nine months. All $46 million went to fund schools and select institutions.

The purchase was a “critical acquisition to prevent development … while at the same time providing funds for schools,” NPCA’s Garder said.

Barrasso backs the Land and Water Conservation Fund, “and the many wonderful projects it supports in Wyoming,” he said in a statement. But control has shifted, he asserted, to Washington D.C.

“Instead of returning the LWCF back to its original intent, the Great American Outdoors Act gives Washington more authority to buy private land in Wyoming,” his statement reads. “We can’t afford to maintain the public lands we already own. It’s irresponsible to add more to the mix.”

The 1964 act establishing the Land and Water Conservation Fund had two principle methods to achieve a goal to “assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility to … such quality and quantity of outdoor recreation resources… to strengthen the health and vitality of the citizens of the United States….” One method was to provide funds to assist states and the second was for federal acquisition “of certain lands and other areas.”

The law had a sunset date that Congress extended before now attempting to make the fund permanent, inviolable and immune from congressional raids. Supporters point to the fund’s revenue from oil and gas production, not taxes, as an important element of the program.

Barrasso is at odds with those elements of the Great American Outdoors Act.

“I also have concerns with the permanent funding of the LWCF and mandatory spending included in the bill,” his statement reads. “It’s not paid for, adds to our overwhelming national debt, and blocks Congress from making future reforms to the program. 

He joined Enzi in criticism that the act only funds parks maintenance backlogs for five years. “The bill also fails to provide a long-term solution for addressing our staggering deferred maintenance backlog at our national parks,” Barrasso said.

Enzi tried to amend the bill to fund park maintenance through a different method. A failed amendment he proposed “modestly raises” fees for several types of visas by $16-$25, park entrance fees by $5 and the non-discounted America the Beautiful Pass by $20.

“The Enzi amendment creates the same National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund as the Great American Outdoors Act, but with real offsets,” he wrote in answers to FAQs on his website. Forty percent of visitors to the U.S. visit a national park, Enzi wrote.

For Americans, “even though it will cost an additional $5, it will still be cheaper to bring a vehicle into a park than taking a family of four to a movie or visiting an amusement park for the day,” his statement reads.