Major environmental legislation sailed through Congress Wednesday while the nation’s political leaders were stuck in intense negotiations over the contours of a fifth COVID-19 relief package.
Maryland environmental groups were jubilant about a bill that would provide $9.5 billion over five years to pay down the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog and provide permanent funding at $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports natural areas and recreation activities.
The legislation was sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights giant who died last week. During a debate on the measure on the House floor Wednesday, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Lewis “understood that conserving America’s great outdoors and public spaces went part in parcel with protecting the legacy of civil rights.”
The House approved the bill by a vote of 310-107. The bill had broad bipartisan support, with 228 Democrats and 81 Republicans voting for it. Maryland’s lone Republican congressman, Andrew P. Harris, was a “no” vote.
The U.S. Senate adopted the measure in June by a 73-25 vote.
President Trump is expected to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk.
“I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted in March. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”
Trump and environmental groups are rarely in alignment, but that was the case Wednesday.
“The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is a significant victory for Maryland,” said Maryland League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Kim Coble. “The bill guarantees that Marylanders will have access to clean, safe, and healthy parks for years to come.”
The Great American Outdoors Act will allow the National Park Service to restore resources that are deteriorating due to age and inconsistent funding. In Maryland alone, park sites that welcome nearly 7 million visitors and support more than 2,900 jobs each year require $244 million in repairs, national studies have shown.
The now-permanent LWCF funding is significant for Maryland: The state has received $231.8 million in LWCF funding over the past five decades, protecting places such as the Assateague Island National Seashore, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Monocacy National Battlefield and the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Maryland also uses LWCF to leverage additional funds, such as state Program Open Space money that funds hundreds of facilities and creates access to local and state parks.
Kate Breimann, state director of Environment Maryland, called the federal commitment “a critical investment.”
“This bipartisan victory shows that Americans are united in the commitment to protecting our public lands and open spaces,” she said.
But Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, objected to the bill, in part because it would add $17 billion to the national debt amid a pandemic.
The legislation also drew stiff opposition from oil-state Republicans because it would draw funds from fees from oil and gas extraction on federal lands and offshore drilling activity.
In an earlier statement, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana called the legislation an “activist, thinly veiled money laundering scheme” that would “accelerate the destruction of 4 million acres of America’s Mississippi River Delta coastal wetlands.”
The most outspoken critic of the bill in the Senate was also from Louisiana. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, said the bill diverts money away from the Gulf, where people live, and toward national parks, where they vacation — an indication of misplaced priorities. Our country has much greater priorities, he said, “than potholes and broken toilets in national parks.”
Election year politics
The bill was seen as a way to boost the reelection chances of lead sponsor Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana — two of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for reelection, as rated by the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections.
Overall, eight of the nine most vulnerable GOP incumbents backed the bill. Texas Sen. John Cornyn was the exception.
Maryland sites needed more than $244 million for deferred maintenance projects, according to a 2018 National Parks Service report that pegged the national backlog at $11.9 billion.
An analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated direct spending and related economic impacts of the bill would add 100,000 “job-years” to the national economy.
Polls show funding the National Park Service and the Land and Water Conservation Fund are overwhelmingly and increasingly popular. In a Pew Charitable Trusts poll last year, 82% of respondents said they wanted Congress to pay up to $1.3 billion to address the National Parks backlog, up from 76% in 2018.
Though popular, the issue may have little effect at the ballot box, said Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Voters are focused on other issues and, in a presidential election year, are likely to base their votes for Senate on their party preference at the top of the ticket, she said.
“Even in normal times, most Americans do not pay much attention to what happens inside of Congress,” Norrander wrote in an email. “[W]ith the current situation, most voters would be more concerned about COVID-19 and the economy.”
Some environmental groups are still wary of the conservation records of some of the GOP senators who voted for the bill.
“They voted right on this one, but it won’t erase their terrible environmental records,” said Hannah Blatt, the communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s political advocacy arm, EDF Action. “They have done nothing to stop the administration’s relentless attacks on our air and water.
By Allison Stevens and Jacob Fischler. Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.