Conservation Fund Bill Could Attach to Lands Package in Lame Duck

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By Dean Scott

A measure to revive an expired federal conservation fund could hitch a ride on legislation that can quickly gain support and avoid draining floor time during the lame-duck session.

A public lands package, which would stitch together an array of bills that enjoy support from both parties, might be a tailor-made match for reauthorizing the fund quickly, in what is traditionally a short lame-duck period, one Montana senator said.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) says a public lands package could incorporate a permanent extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund with other bills to address backlogged maintenance in national parks.

“The senator will be looking at all avenues possible, including a potential legislative lands package,” a Daines spokesman said Oct. 30.

Daines, in an Oct. 30 letter, is urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and their Democratic counterparts to make the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other lands measures a priority during the session, which is slated to open the week after the Nov. 6 midterm elections and end sometime before the Christmas holiday.

Other options to get the bill onto the floor include attaching it to must-pass legislation, including a funding extension needed to avoid shutting down agencies, such as the Interior Department and the EPA, that are now operating under a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 7.

Expired

The conservation fund, which has benefited Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and also has helped acquire historic sites and build biking trails, expired Sept. 30 when Congress failed to extend its $900-million-a-year authorization.

The bulk of the fund’s revenue comes from federal receipts from offshore oil and gas leases, but Congress typically has appropriated only about half of the annual amount.

Daines and other backers are looking to avoid future lapses by permanently reauthorizing the fund and making its spending mandatory.

The measures Daines highlighted are among the nearly 100 bills important to senators—particularly Western senators—that have been approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines wrote in his Oct. 30 letter.

The lame-duck session should be used “to produce tangible and meaningful results,” he wrote, “and place politics aside, regardless of the election outcomes this fall.”

Parks, Monuments

A public lands package could combine several of the relevant bills the Senate energy panel approved Oct. 2:

  • an amended bill (S. 569) to permanently authorize the LWCF, authored by the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D);
  • the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 3172) authored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to provide $1.3 billion a year to help reduce an $11.6 billion National Parks Service maintenance backlog; and
  • other measures that designate new national monuments and allow federal land exchanges.

The House Natural Resources Committee has readied its own mix of lands measures that could be used for a similar House package.

Its chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), shepherded legislation to permanently reauthorize the LWCF through his committee Sept. 13 and also sees a broad lands package as the best hope for extending the conservation fund in the House during the lame duck.

Daines rattled off several other candidates for the lands package in his letter to congressional leaders:

  • a bill (S. 941) to make 30,000 acres just outside the Yellowstone National Park off limits to mining;
  • a measure (S. 2160) launching a pilot arbitration program to resolve disputes over forest management in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming; and
  • legislation (S. 685) to speed approval of certain rural drinking water systems in his state.

Cantwell’s bill has 49 Senate co-sponsors, including Daines and Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.), two other Republicans involved in the effort to permanently authorize the fund.

Cantwell’s bill is being scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates how proposed legislation will impact the federal budget, and Senate aides say they expect those numbers in the coming weeks.

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