A bipartisan “public lands package” in the Senate that would resurrect millions of dollars in expired conservation funding and expand opportunities for rural areas in the growing outdoor recreation economy was stalled by the government shutdown.
The bill (S. 47), co-sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), seeks to permanently re-authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). It would also modernize numerous wildlife funding programs and support numerous local conservation proposals.
“This is a wonderful package that will benefit hunters and anglers along with wildlife and our public lands,” said Julia Peebles, government relations manager for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Peebles said the public lands package is necessary to complete the unfinished business of the last term in Congress. “S. 47 is the culmination of years of work from not only [Backcountry Hunters and Anglers], but also numerous conservation groups and many, many Congressional offices and staff,” she said. “We appreciate that Senators Murkowski and Cantwell are bringing these policies forward and keeping their word.”
Senate action on all fronts was being hampered as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) maintains a narrow focus on President Trump’s border wall demands, she said.
Helping rural areas take advantage of opportunities that public land provides would be a good move, said an economist who studies public land and economic development.
“For a variety of reasons, we’ve found that rural counties with federal public lands have a statistically significant economic advantage to those that don’t,” said Headwaters Economics’ Chris Mehl.
Mehl agreed with Peebles that the public lands package should be a high priority for Congress. He said that rural communities taking part in the growing outdoor recreation economy, “perform better in terms of job creation and other economic factors.”
“They’re growing faster,” he said. “They’re creating more jobs. They’re seeing their incomes go up faster, so that adds up to a pretty significant advantage.”
“Public lands and outdoor recreation is a way for these rural communities to differentiate themselves. That’s what economics is about, to create a product that’s either higher quality or less expensive. In this case, it’s both a quality and an expense issue. You can go hunting or fishing or take the family for a picnic on these public lands. It’s also often free, but it’s a great value even when you have to pay a little.”
One important component of the proposed package is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The program provides federal funds for trails, boat launches, baseball diamonds, forests and many other local parks and recreation areas across America. Traditionally, half of the program is sent to states and local governments to expand recreation opportunities.
Funding for the competitive grants program is provided by a fee established in 1964 collected on offshore oil and gas drilling. The current structure of the conservation fund allows Congress to re-direct funds to other expenses via the annual Congressional budget negotiation process. The fund expired on September 30 due to lack of Congressional action.
“It’s a shame we don’t just authorize the LWCF permanently,” Mehl said. “That would provide certainty, especially in states that redistribute the programs down to the state and local level. And compared to other pieces of the federal budget, like Medicare or Social Security, it’s a small, small slice of the pie.”
Besides reauthorizing and making LWCF permanent, the Senate public lands package includes a variety of recreation areas on federal lands that haven’t moved through the federal legislative process.
“The key pieces in this bill that we’ve been working on are some of the wilderness and wild and scenic components,” said Nicole Cordan of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “For instance, there’s the Emery County Public Land Management Act. That would protect over 500,000 acres of land in Utah. Some of that is wilderness, other parts as a national recreation area. This includes a 2,500-acre Jurassic National Monument, an area with one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur bones in the world.”
Cordan also pointed to the California Desert Protection and Restoration Act. This bipartisan bill, introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Representative Paul Cook (R-California) designates hundreds of thousands of acres as wilderness and wild and scenic rivers while also “designating more than a 100,000 acres for an off-road vehicle area that makes sure those areas can continue to be used for that purpose.”
Some members of Congress, such as former House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), are likely to oppose the public lands package. Some opponents are in favor of privatizing federal lands, while others favor expansion of fossil fuel development, mineral extraction and logging for timber.