The Senate yesterday became the first congressional chamber to pass a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, setting up a major debate when the provision is conferenced with legislation passed by the House last December.
The LWCF reauthorization was included in a sweeping bipartisan energy reform package backed by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that passed the upper chamber on an 85-12 vote (Greenwire, April 20).
The Senate on Tuesday also voted 97-0 to add a natural resources package to the energy bill that would promote hunting and angling opportunities on public lands, reauthorize an expired but broadly supported land disposal and acquisition program, and designate new wilderness within a national monument in northern New Mexico, among several other provisions.
Murkowski this week said she is aiming for a quick conference with the House to produce a final energy bill that President Obama could sign before the mid-July congressional recess. The window of opportunity for a conference is truncated by this year’s campaign season.
Senate passage of a permanent extension of LWCF was a major victory for conservation and sportsmen’s groups who have fought to keep the 51-year program afloat amid challenges from fiscal conservatives and critics of the federal government’s landholdings.
The program, which funds the purchase of federal lands, private land conservation easements and state recreation grants, among other activities, briefly lapsed last fall before being renewed for three years in the year-end omnibus package last December with a sizeable one-time funding boost.
Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, said the Senate bill will allow LWCF "to continue its long tradition of successfully providing clean water, conserving natural resources, increasing recreation opportunities and supporting communities in every state across the nation."
Yet the reauthorization is expected to hit stiff opposition from House critics, including Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who last fall introduced a sweeping LWCF reform bill that would redirect much of the program’s funding to states and to educating oil and gas workers whose industry generates about $900 million annually for LWCF.
Bishop, whose panel has jurisdiction over two bills included in the House energy package, is expected to be one of the lower chamber’s conferees negotiating the final bill.
"There are a number of additions to the [Senate] bill added last night through the amendment process that the committee is still reviewing," Bishop said in a statement yesterday. "There are provisions that certainly need to be addressed but I look forward to conferencing with the Senate and advancing H.R. 8."
He did not name any provisions in particular, but he signaled to E&E Daily yesterday that there are concerns in his chamber with the LWCF provisions.
"The Senate did what the Senate did, which is put everything including the kitchen sink on a bill to pass it," he said.
The Senate energy bill would slightly alter the formula by which LWCF money is appropriated. While current law stipulates that 40 percent of the money must go to federal lands acquisition, the language in the Senate bill — brokered by Murkowski and Cantwell last summer — would guarantee that 40 percent also goes to non-federal programs including private land conservation easements, wildlife grants and state recreation.
Whether that bipartisan deal can be sustained in conference is unclear, particularly in an election year in which one of the front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), is a leading critic of purchasing new federal lands.
Supporters of the Murkowski-Cantwell LWCF deal are cautiously optimistic, noting the strong vote tally for the Senate energy bill — 12 Republicans opposed it — and the lukewarm support for an amendment offered by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) that would have limited LWCF land acquisitions if the nonroad federal lands maintenance backlog exceeds $1 billion. (The backlog is currently at least several times that amount.)
Lankford’s amendment was defeated 34-63, with 18 Republicans voting "nay."
Advocates for state-led recreation — namely the state-side grants program in LWCF — are expected to lobby Congress for a bigger slice of the LWCF pie during conference negotiations.
"We are excited that a permanent re-authorization of the LWFC is finally moving forward," said Doug Eiken, executive director of the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers, whose members oversee the distribution of stateside funds from LWCF. "We will be working with both the Senate and House leadership, congressional staff and other LWCF advocates to ensure dependable and equitable funding for the State Assistance Program is included in the final legislation approved by Congress."
Sportsmen advocates said they were thrilled the natural resources amendment passed without a single vote of opposition.
"We worked hard to find areas of agreement, and we didn’t allow controversial amendments from either side of the aisle to derail our effort," said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who co-sponsored a package of sportsmen’s bill with Murkowski. "This bipartisan legislation will enhance opportunities for outdoor recreation and reauthorize key conservation programs. It will also go a long way toward solving many of the problems hunters and anglers face in accessing and using our nation’s public lands."
Major provisions in the resources package would reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act through 2019, permanently reauthorize the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act and direct federal lands agencies to compile a list of lands that are open to hunting and fishing but inaccessible due to land ownership issues.
The resources package also included Heinrich’s bill to designate 21,420 acres of wilderness within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument north of Taos, N.M.
Sportsmen’s advocates said that while there’s no guarantee the provisions will survive conference negotiations, having 97 votes of support in the Senate can’t hurt the package’s chances.
Reporter Abby Kessler contributed.