Outdoors Act a Bipartisan Bright Spot

Access and conservation are especially important issues in the public land states of the West

By Rob Breeding

 Politics can seem a pox on our land. Even a disease, however, can sometimes produce great things.

Such was the case of the Great American Outdoors Act — a landmark piece of legislation that will, for the first time since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was approved in 1965 — fully and permanently make $900 million available to the program every year.

The Conservation Fund is intended to protect and conserve sensitive land and water, as well as provide public access to those resources. The money comes from the royalty fees oil and gas developers pay for offshore drilling.

The Outdoors Act also provides $9.5 billion to pay for a backlog of maintenance projects at National Parks.

Politics is always a factor in federal appropriations. That’s why, despite the original intent of diverting just under a billion dollars per year to the Conservation Fund, the program rarely received full funding and expired altogether in 2018.

The Outdoors Act revived it.

Prospects for reauthorization received a boost from the particularly contentious political environment of 2020. In addition to the fiercely competitive presidential race, control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs. Access and conservation are especially important issues in the public land states of the West, and in 2020, two western GOP senators in tight races are needed to maintain the Republican majority in the Senate.

It says something about the popularity of public land in the West that both these senators played roles in shepherding the Outdoors Act across the finish line. Cory Gardner of Colorado introduced the Senate version of the bill earlier this year, and Montana Sen. Steve Daines has been a visible proponent of the legislation.

The Outdoors Act seemed likely to win approval even before Steve Bullock launched his senate bid, but when the conservation and access supporting Montana governor announced he was challenging Daines it motivated Republicans to push a bill not universally loved on their side of the aisle. All 25 votes against the bill in the Senate, and all but two “nays” in the House were cast by Republicans.

Bullock’s entry in Montana’s senate race has turned it into a true toss up. Before that Daines was expected to easily retain the seat. I don’t know if sponsoring the bill will be enough for Gardner. His Colorado seat is rated one of the most likely Dem pick ups this cycle. The state has been trending increasingly blue since Barack Obama won it in 2008.

It’s important to note that Sen. Jon Tester has long been a champion of the Conservation Fund. He was a cosponsor of the bill and introduced legislation for its reauthorization all the way back in 2009. Tester was also critical of a Trump administration budget proposal that would have cut funding to just $14.7 million in 2021.

When Trump signed the bill into law on Aug. 4, it rendered that conflict moot.

Making unanimous the Montana delegation was Rep. Greg Gianforte, who announced his support for the Outdoors Act this spring. Gianforte is leaving his seat to run for governor and I suspect that influenced his decision.

Trump is the most unlikely of Outdoors Act backers, but it is his seismograph signature that turned the legislation into law. The president wasn’t originally a supporter and Western issues such as access and conservation have never seemed high on his priority list. But the tensions of a particularly competitive election season and a nation reeling from the double whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest paved the way for this refreshing, bipartisan action.

The bill did pass in numbers sufficient to override a presidential veto, but there’s no guarantee votes won’t change when you have to rebuke the president. So Trump earns his conservation merit badge, at least where the Great American Outdoors Act is concerned.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.