Lawmakers may have to settle for a short-term fix to resurrect an expired conservation fund as the lame-duck congressional session heads into its final weeks.
There’s plenty of support from both parties to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is backed by federal receipts from offshore oil and gas leases. But supporters have struggled to get the extension to the floor.
“It would be nice to get a permanent fix and not just a temporary extension,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, told Bloomberg Environment, but a short-term extension for the conservation fund, which expired Sept. 30, may be “that best we can do,” he said.
“My guess is it hitches a ride on the appropriations bill,” he said, referring to the multi-agency spending measure needed by Dec. 7 to keep federal dollars flowing to EPA, the Interior Department, and other agencies still without a full-year bill.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has added parcels to Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and has also helped acquire historic sites and build hiking and biking trails.
Both the House Natural Resources and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees have approved legislation to permanently authorize the conservation fund, which would avoid future lapses but also make its spending mandatory, essentially bypassing appropriators.
Competition for floor time remains fierce, particularly in the Senate, which is scheduled to adjourn in mid-December and is struggling to move several high-priority measures, including a farm bill and the funding extension needed to avoid a shutdown.
Many backers are still holding out for a permanent extension.
“Look, we are going to push like hell for it,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told Bloomberg Environment.
A conservation fund extension can move quickly if both parties can get behind either a permanent extension or a one-year reauthorization, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Bloomberg Environment Nov. 29. “Anything can happen around here if it’s done by agreement” between both parties, Cornyn said.
Coastal State Equity?
One obstacle to a quick resolution may be resentment among coastal-state senators who want the fund permanently reauthorized but say their states should be getting a bigger slice of conservation dollars.
“One the one hand, it’s a terrific fund, it is something that I want to see continually reauthorized and appropriated fully,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Bloomberg Environment Nov. 29. “On the other hand, it has for a long, long, long time been badly unbalanced, in favor of inland and what I call upperland uses, and away from coastal sea and lakeshore uses.”
The coasts “get chump change,” he said.
A band of senators including Republican Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.), Richard Burr (N.C.), and Gardner along with Democrats led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top energy committee Democrat, back a permanent authorization.
Daines wants to roll a permanent extension of the fund into a broader public lands package, including bills to address backlogged maintenance in national parks.
Those Senate supporters, along with Democratic Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins joined environmental groups including the Nature Conservancy in front of the Capitol on Nov. 29 to push for quick action to permanently authorize the conservation fund.
They were joined by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
Catnwell’s bill (S. 569), which was approved by the Senate energy panel Oct. 2, would permanently authorize at least $900 million into the land and water fund, double the amount provided under the 2018 omnibus spending bill.
A Congressional Budget Office analysis of Cantwell’s bill concluded it would make available $30.6 billion in new budget authority through 2028 to the Interior Department and the Forest Service for land acquisition, state grants for outdoor recreation, and other purposes.
More than $18.4 billion has been appropriated from the conservation fund since it was established in 1965, according to the CBO report, issued Nov. 19.
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