House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) yesterday unveiled his long-awaited proposal to overhaul the Land and Water Conservation Fund, setting the stage for what could be a long-term battle to reauthorize the 50-year-old program.
Bishop’s draft bill would greatly curtail the purchase of new federal lands, roughly triple the portion of money that has gone to states, and require that at least 20 percent of the money support offshore energy permitting and workforce development and at least 15 percent go to counties with large amounts of federal lands, among many other provisions (Greenwire, Nov. 5).
If passed, it would mark the most sweeping changes to LWCF since its passage in 1964.
Bishop’s legislation drew cautious praise from some Republican lawmakers, state park advocates and the oil and gas industry, but was roundly panned by a conservationists, sportsmen and some urban parks proponents.
Critics accused Bishop of undermining LWCF’s core purpose of conserving lands and promoting recreation, though some credited him for laying his policy cards on the table.
"Bishop has refused to have the [reauthorization] conversation in his committee since taking over," said Land Tawney, who leads Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a conservation group that strongly opposed Bishop’s draft bill. "This is actually starting the conversation."
Yet Tawney, echoing a view held by many, said the measure "doesn’t stand a chance" of passage.
Bishop has scheduled a Nov. 18 hearing on the bill. After that, the path forward for LWCF reauthorization is unclear.
A bill by Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to provide a permanent, and mostly clean, reauthorization of LWCF has 195 co-sponsors, including 23 Republicans, but there appears little chance such a measure will receive a floor vote given Bishop’s strong opposition.
There’s also broad support in the Senate for a bipartisan compromise brokered during the summer by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). It would provide permanent authorization for LWCF while guaranteeing that at least 40 percent of the funds would go to non-federal programs like state grants, forest easements and endangered species.
Proponents of a clean LWCF reauthorization are likely to continue pushing for a measure to be attached to a must-pass piece of legislation, such as an omnibus spending bill in early December.
Reactions to Bishop’s bill were mixed.
"We are pleased with the treatment of state assistance and urban community parks in Chairman Bishop’s draft bill and that he recognizes that additional resources should be going to support conservation and recreation in and near the communities where 80 percent of Americans now reside," said Kevin O’Hara, vice president of urban and government affairs at the National Recreation and Park Association. "However, we are deeply concerned to see additional programs included, which are not consistent with the stated purposes of the original act — conservation and recreation."
The Obama administration has not taken an official position on the measure, though it is expected to strongly oppose it.
"From what I’ve seen of the bill so far, it does not stick to the principles of the Land and Water Conservation Fund," Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told E&E Daily at an event yesterday at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. "It was a commitment to the American public that the oil and gas companies would give back to communities, and that promise is not held in the bill."
Reactions from lawmakers were mostly guarded.
Murkowski appreciates that Bishop is "adding his voice" to the LWCF reauthorization debate, said spokesman Robert Dillon. Dillon said Murkowski "shares his concerns" over federal land acquisition and his desire to boost funding for states. Murkowski also hopes LWCF can be reformed to address the federal lands agencies’ deferred maintenance backlogs, Dillon said.
"Ultimately, Congress needs to find a path forward on reauthorization that can pass both chambers," Dillon said. "But in the meantime, appropriators can continue to fund LWCF projects from the existing LWCF balance."
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a close ally of Bishop’s in the LWCF debate, said the congressman "shares my goal of making structural reforms to a broken program."
"I look forward to working with him to ensure that LWCF puts more resources in the hands of state and local officials, as opposed to adding more and more land to the federal estate without proper management," Lee said.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a key Republican backer of a clean LWCF reauthorization, did not comment on the Bishop bill but supports the Murkowski-Cantwell package, said spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins.
Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), who spearheaded a group of 30 House Republicans in September that urged House leadership to pass the Murkowski-Cantwell package, would rather that Congress "reauthorize the LWCF rather than new approaches that undercut its essential and successful conservation mission," according to spokesman John Elizandro.
Grijalva did not hold back in his critique.
"His new bill would destroy the fundamental conservation and recreation purposes of the program in order to solve problems that don’t exist and give Big Oil yet another tax break," he said in a statement. "Bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate have been working to reauthorize LWCF for months while he has filibustered and heckled from the sidelines."
Without Bishop’s support, there’s little chance Grijalva’s reauthorization bill will make it to the House floor.
One way around Bishop would be through a discharge petition, in which a majority of House members can sign a petition to force leaders to bring a measure to a vote. It’s a rarely used — and rarely successful — procedure, though members of both parties used it successfully just last week to advance a measure that would revive the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Grijalva’s bill, which currently has 23 Republican co-sponsors, would need the signature of all Democrats and 30 Republicans to be successful. LWCF backers say they’re not overly confident that such a maneuver would work, given that Republicans just elected Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and will be reluctant to purse actions that sow discord within the GOP.
"We’d like to know it would succeed before we make a major push, and we’re still working on increasing our co-sponsorship number," said Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana. "We believe the contrast between our bill and Bishop’s will bring more members around to seeing clean reauthorization is the better way to resolve this."
Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.