House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop has received praise and criticism from his Republican colleagues over his proposal to overhaul the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a sign of potential headwinds as the Utahan seeks to advance his bill.
Bishop's proposal, which he released last week, would significantly slash the amount of money from LWCF that can go to federal lands acquisition while providing no less than 20 percent support for oil and gas permitting and workforce development and 15 percent for rural counties. It would also ensure no less than 45 percent go to states to support close-to-home recreation (Greenwire, Nov. 5).
Bishop defended the changes, noting that the law originally guaranteed at least 60 percent of the money go to states. He also argued that Congress must invest in offshore drilling if it hopes to sustain and grow LWCF's main revenue source -- oil and gas royalties.
Yet the bill faces a buzz saw of opposition from conservationists, sportsmen and Democrats, and has gained a mixed reception among Bishop's GOP colleagues.
LWCF expired Sept. 30 for the first time in its 50-year history, setting off a scramble among its supporters to extend it on any available legislative vehicle. Bishop and other reform proponents have thus far succeeded in thwarting a clean reauthorization.
But yesterday, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) issued a statement strongly condemning Bishop's draft bill, calling it a "radical departure" from the fund's original intent.
"It diverts money away from conservation, throws up roadblocks to preservation and sets top-down, arbitrary funding formulas," Meehan said.
Meehan in late September spearheaded a letter signed by 30 House Republicans that urged chamber leaders to pass an LWCF reauthorization bill co-authored by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that proposed modest changes to the program's funding formula.
Meehan, who represents a suburban Philadelphia district and does not sit on the Natural Resources Committee, said he's hopeful Bishop's draft would be open to amendments if it is brought to the floor. It's scheduled to receive a Nov. 18 committee hearing.
He added that there's widespread support for H.R. 1814, a bill by Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to permanently reauthorize LWCF, with minor tweaks to ensure improved access for sportsmen.
"A group of 196 bipartisan House members supports existing legislation to extend this invaluable conservation program, a program that spends not one nickel of taxpayer dollars," Meehan said. "Yet the bill cannot get a vote in committee. I hope that can change."
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said in a letter to followers last Thursday that he was "disappointed" with the Bishop draft. Daines was among 14 Republican senators to vote in January in support of a permanent, clean LWCF reauthorization.
"As drafted, I believe the chairman's bill will undermine the integrity of this important program," he said. "I have urged the chairman to modify his draft bill to reflect the important value of the LWCF to Montana and our state's outdoors heritage."
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), who is among a small number of Republicans on Bishop's committee who are seen as potential swing votes on the chairman's proposal, was unable to be reached yesterday while in Montana, but he believes "LWCF works very well for Montana as is," said spokeswoman Heather Swift. Zinke was the only panel Republican to break party ranks at a September markup in voting for a permanent reauthorization of LWCF.
Yet Bishop's proposal speaks to widespread concerns among fiscally conservative Republicans that the federal government's land holdings have grown too large and that states for too long have seen a paltry portion of LWCF come their way.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior, said Bishop's LWCF reforms would "restore the role of states" and "ensure its value for future generations."
"The LWCF has turned into a slush fund with little to no oversight or transparency, all while serious challenges to public land management go unaddressed," Lummis said. "The policy of growing the federal estate at any cost needs to be thrown out, especially in light of the federal government's $20 million maintenance backlog and the perpetual funding uncertainty for current federal obligations."
Bishop's bill last week also drew conditional praise from Murkowski and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
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