The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that automatically provides $900 million in permanent funding for federal land purchases. The Senate passed the bill in June, so it now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature.
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), passed by a bi-partisan vote of 310 in favor of the bill and 107 opposed on July 22. When it becomes law it will provide $900 million funding automatically each year, drawn from federal oil and gas revenues, to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), used to increase the size of the federal estate by purchasing land for parks, trails, and other types of federal recreation areas.
The bill also allows billions of dollars to be spent on addressing a maintenance backlog at national parks over a five-year period. In 2018, the federal government estimated there was a maintenance backlog of approximately $12 billion in needed repairs and upkeep on existing federal lands. As a step to remedy the backlog, GAOA provides $1.9 billion annually for five years for national park maintenance.
Trump Pushed Bill
President Trump announced his support for a bill to fully fund the LWCF and address the maintenance backlog on federal lands, especially parks, in March, just as various states’ governors began issuing shelter in place orders, fearing of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks” Trump tweeted in March, continuing, “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”
Trump’s support resulted in the U.S. Senate passing GAOA on June 17, by a vote of 73 in favor of the bill and 25 opposed.
Misplaced Spending Priorities
Not everyone supports the bill, however. Some Republicans lawmakers, including Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), argued during the economic crisis created by the pandemic, it was bad time to direct federal oil and gas revenues to land purchases, when it could be put to other uses.
“‘Quick. There’s a global pandemic. Let’s spend billions of dollars repairing fences, putting up new signs, fixing toilets at our wildlife refuges, parks, and forests,’ said no one ever,” Graves said on the House floor before the vote. “What this legislation does is it takes everything else and it puts it on the back burner.”
The law mistakenly makes purchasing new lands a priority over maintaining properties the federal government already owns, said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who opposed the act referring to it on the House floor as the “not-so-great American Outdoors Act.” Bishop criticized the bill for making the LWCF funding mandatory, while the spending on repairs and maintenance was discretionary.
“Now we are also saying in this bill the billion dollars of money to buy more land is now also a priority above and beyond what’s happening for the parks,” said Bishop. “This bill is not about funding our public lands … the only thing this is about is how we can find another way to buy more property.
“We can’t afford the property we already have,” Bishop said.
‘Owns Far Too Much Land’
The federal government already owns far more land than the America’s founders ever intended, said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in a press release issued July 21 before the U.S. House voted on GAOA, urging them to reject the bill.
“The federal government already owns far too much land – 640 million acres or more than one-quarter of the country,” said Ebell. “It owns far more land than it can it can adequately manage and maintain, as is evidenced by the need for a special appropriation of $9.5 billion to address half the maintenance backlog.
“Wide private property ownership and secure property rights are cornerstones of America’s system of limited government and essential conditions of economic prosperity,” Ebell said. “Instead of spending billions and billions of dollars to buy millions and millions of acres of private land, Congress should be passing legislation to transfer substantial BLM lands and National Forests to the states and into private ownership.”
Federal land ownership also rob cities and states of revenue, said Ebell.
“Federal land is a huge economic as well as environmental burden on rural counties,” said Ebell. “The federal government does not pay local property taxes, and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program provides only pennies on the dollar in compensation for lost property taxes.
“Taking more and more private property off the tax rolls will only exacerbate this problem,” Ebell said.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.