House passes bipartisan public lands bill; next stop president’s desk

A scenic overlook at Bellevue State Park in Jackson County. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources)

WASHINGTON — Major environmental legislation sailed through Congress Wednesday while the nation’s political leaders were stuck in intense negotiations over the contours of a fifth coronavirus relief package.

The bill would provide $9.5 billion over five years to pay down the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog and provide permanent funding at $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports natural areas and recreation activities.

It was sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights giant who passed away last week.

The U.S. House approved the bill by a vote of 310 to 107. The bill had broad bipartisan support, with 228 Democrats and 81 Republicans voting for it. Iowa Democratic Reps. Cindy Axne, Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack voted in favor of the bill.

“Passing the Great American Outdoors Act is a huge win for everyone who loves public lands and waters,” Finkenauer said in a statement. “Whether it’s fishing, hunting, boating, or watching wildlife — our public lands provide memorable moments for families and allow for traditions to be passed down through generations. I cherish memories of fishing with my dad and I look forward to passing down that tradition, just as so many other Iowans do.”

Axne, in a statement, said: “Our public lands are shared by all, and it falls on all of us to help keep preserved, accessible, and protected from the impacts of the climate crisis and generations of visits and recreation.”

Voting against the bill were 104 Republicans, two Democrats — Reps. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Peter Visclosky of Indiana — and one Independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King voted no.

The U.S. Senate adopted the measure in June by a 73-25 vote. Both of Iowa’s Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, supported the bill.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk.

“I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted in March. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

The legislation drew plaudits from environmental advocates in and outside of Congress.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called it a “huge step forward to ensuring that every community has access to nature” and a “testament to the power of grassroots activists and the enduring popularity of conservation.”

Mike Happe, president and CEO of Iowa-based Winnebago Industries, called the bill a win for the $778 billion outdoor recreation economy. “This legislation will ensure safe and enjoyable experiences for the millions of RVers across the country by addressing the deferred maintenance backlog on public lands and waters,” Happe said.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, objected to the bill, in part because it would add $17 billion to the national debt amid a pandemic.

The legislation also drew stiff opposition from oil-state Republicans because it would draw funds from fees from oil and gas extraction on federal lands and offshore drilling activity.

In an earlier statement, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana called the legislation an “activist, thinly veiled money laundering scheme” that would “accelerate the destruction of four million acres of America’s Mississippi River Delta coastal wetlands.”

The bill was seen as a way to boost the reelection chances of lead sponsor Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana — two of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for reelection, as rated by the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections.

Overall, eight of the nine most vulnerable GOP incumbents backed the bill. Texas’s John Cornyn was the exception.

Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonpartisan group based in Montana that advocates for conservation policies, strongly supported the bill.

The national backlog for deferred maintenance projects, according to a 2018 National Parks Service report, is nearly $12 billion.

Federal public lands in Iowa that are supported by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) include the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Allamakee County, the Driftless Area National Wildlife Area in Clayton County and the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge in Dubuque County.

A list of Iowa conservation projects that have received LWCF funding include, according to Finkenauer’s office:

An analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated direct spending and related economic impacts of the bill would add 100,000 “job-years” to the national economy.

Polls show funding the National Park Service and the Land and Water Conservation Fund are overwhelmingly and increasingly popular. In a Pew Charitable Trusts poll last year, 82% of respondents said they wanted Congress to pay up to $1.3 billion to address the National Parks backlog, up from 76% in 2018.

Though popular, the issue may have little effect at the ballot box, said Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Voters are focused on other issues and, in a presidential election year, are likely to base their votes for Senate on their party preference at the top of the ticket, she said.

“Even in normal times, most Americans do not pay much attention to what happens inside of Congress,” Norrander wrote in an email. “(W)ith the current situation, most voters would be more concerned about COVID-19 and the economy.”

Some environmental groups are still wary of the conservation records of some of the GOP senators who voted for the bill.

“They voted right on this one, but it won’t erase their terrible environmental records,” said Hannah Blatt, the communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s political advocacy arm, EDF Action. “They have done nothing to stop the administration’s relentless attacks on our air and water.