Signaling a dramatic change of course from President Donald Trump’s earlier budget plan, which less than a month ago called for steep cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the National Park Service, a bipartisan coalition of more than a dozen senators on Wednesday announced a conservation initiative that dedicates more than $2 billion a year to public lands.
The effort led by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, packages two bills — the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act and the Restore our Parks Act, both of which have already cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support.
Lawmakers leading the charge said Trump gave them his word that he’ll sign off on the bill, which they expect will come up for a full Senate vote in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, President Trump even tweeted his support for passing the legislation, calling on Congress to send him a bill that “fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks” while giving Daines and Gardner credit for negotiating the deal.
In announcing the support, the gathering of western lawmakers at the Capitol on Wednesday included Daines and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who both touched on the historic nature of the proposal to fully and permanently fund LWCF at $900 million a year, which is the full amount allowed, nearly doubling the $485 million Congress approved for the program this year and allocating 60 times more than what Trump proposed in his budget plan just a few weeks ago.
“This is absolutely a historic moment for our country and for conservation,” said Daines, who compared the long and arduous journey toward securing full funding for the popular conservation funding mechanism to climbing Granite Peak, the highest mountain in his home state. “As we stand here today the summit is in view and we are going to get on top of this mountain.”
Emphasizing the bipartisan nature of the bill to fully fund LWCF and help clear the backlog of deferred maintenance at National Park Service units, which includes $6.5 billion in mandatory funding, Daines and Gardner said they met last week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and President Trump to ask for their support.
According to Daines, the lawmakers requested that McConnell send the bill to the Senate floor for an up or down vote, which the majority leader agreed to do so long as Trump promised to sign the measure when it crossed his desk.
“We sat down and shared pictures with President Trump of our public lands in Colorado and Montana and he committed to doing it,” Daines said. “As a city that is very polarized, once again it has taken public lands to bring a divided government together.”
The legislation would dedicate about $1.3 billion per year for six years to reduce the backlog of park maintenance across the country.
If approved by Congress and signed by Trump, it will stand out as the most significant conservation enacted by Congress in nearly half a century, the lawmakers said.
As news of the agreement spread, the initiative was celebrated by conservation leaders who for months have been calling on lawmakers to fully fund LWCF in an effort to build on the momentum gained last year when Congress voted to permanently reauthorize the fund, which since 1964 has used revenue from offshore oil and gas leases to fund conservation and recreation projects across the country, including investing more than $540 million in Montana.
Tester, a staunch advocate of LWCF since he took office 13 years ago, and the author of a 2009 bill that sought to permanently authorize and fully fund the initiative, said he was especially pleased by the Trump Administration’s sudden election-year decision to reverse course from its Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal to cut funding from LWCF by 97 percent, to just $14.7 million.
“I’m thrilled the President and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have changed their position and now back my bipartisan legislation to fully and permanently fund the LWCF,” Tester said. “So today is a good day — we’ve been fighting tooth and nail for decades to get full funding for this critical conservation program that sustains our state’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy and protects our Montana way of life for generations to come.”
The senators who unveiled the legislation also included Mark Warner, D-Virginia; Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia; Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico; Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee; Michael Bennet, D-Colorado; Angus King, I-Maine; Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
Full and permanent funding for LWCF has garnered support from Montana’s entire congressional delegation, which has emphasized the conservation fund’s role in helping spur the outdoor recreation economy, which continues to outpace overall economic growth across the West.
Still, despite wide support for LWCF, it has only received full funding once in its history, and proponents say the move by lawmakers to pass legislation to authorize annual allocations of up to $900 million is a watershed moment for the future of conservation.
Some observers pointed out that election-year political calculus almost certainly played a role in the sudden wave of momentum behind the public lands measures, which are both immensely popular with the public even if they have proven elusive.
Aaron Murphy, executive director of the Montana Conservation Voters, said his group has been mounting pressure on Daines for months leading up to Wednesday’s announcement.
“We’re pleased to see that our accountability worked,” Murphy said in a statement. “But it’s unfortunate that for some lawmakers, it takes the threat of a tough election year to finally do something for Montana’s public lands.”
For his part, Daines noted bipartisan efforts last year to secure funding for LWCF to the tune of $495 million, which is the most money authorized since 2003, even if it does fall short of the $900 million allowed.
“Remember that last year working in a bipartisan fashion LWCF was funded at $495 million for fiscal year 2020,” Daines said. “It’s not helpful to turn this into a partisan political issue. This is the most important conservation legislation we have had in 50 years or 100 years, depending on who up here you talk to.”
Following the announcement, a slew of conservation stakeholders voiced support, including Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow.
“On behalf of all the units of the National Park Service, and as the Superintendent of Glacier National Park I want to thank Senator Daines and all the members of Congress who support our national parks in many ways,” Mow said in a statement.” Restoring our parks will be a historic one if it comes forward.”