Bipartisanship has been scarce in Congress this year, but lawmakers in both parties have come together on a major bill to address the significant maintenance backlog at U.S. parks. And the Senate is about to vote on it.
Senate Democrats and Republicans next week are poised to pass the Bipartisan Great Outdoors Act, which would permanently fund land and water conservation efforts and provide billions to fund neglected park maintenance.
The lead sponsors are Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. Both states suffer from significant maintenance backlogs at national parks and land.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, is also a sponsor of the bill and said it would help his state pay for $1.1 billion in deferred park maintenance.
The long list of needed repairs in Virginia includes the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to U.S. Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The park awaits more than $3 million in maintenance and repairs.
The National Parks maintenance overall backlog totals $12 billion. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Service “is second only to the Department of Defense in the amount of infrastructure it manages.”
The Yosemite National Park maintenance backlog, for example, tops $582 million. Money is needed to rehabilitate trails and to maintain buildings at the popular tourist attraction.
“This legislation represents a truly historic investment in our public lands,” Warner said.
The measure would establish a restoration fund for the parks paid for with up to $1.9 billion annually in royalties from federal energy development projects. It would also make permanent federal funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in 1964 but has been depleted over the decades.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, called permanent federal funding “an unrealized goal of Congress and the conservation community” since the fund was created.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, agreed to bring the measure to the floor at the urging of Gardner, who is one of the most politically vulnerable Republicans in the upcoming election.
“Their bill will safeguard our nation’s public lands for recreation and conservation and help generations of Americans continue to access and enjoy these treasures,” McConnell said Thursday.
The bill is expected on the floor next week.
Sen. John Thune, the majority whip and South Dakota Republican, said the measure, “Will take a good amount of time on the floor.”
Gardner is anxious to promote a legislative victory that brings resources to Colorado. Gardner’s race is considered a toss-up, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. He is likely to face former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“The far-left environmental groups that have attacked me for the last 10 years are not going to change their mind, but it’s very difficult to say I don’t support public lands when I helped pass the most significant public lands package going back to Teddy Roosevelt,” Gardner told the Washington Examiner on Thursday.
Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, is another sponsor and vulnerable incumbent up for reelection who is hoping to get a boost from passage of the measure.
President Trump played a key role in building momentum for the legislation to move through Congress.
Trump in March called on Congress via tweet, “To send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”
Democrats quickly pointed out Trump’s tweet contrasted with his own fiscal 2021 budget proposal, which called for cutting the conservation fund by 97%.
Both parties and the White House are now eager to get a bill signed into law soon.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced the measure in the House, but it’s not on the schedule for consideration. The House does not return for votes until the end of June and is only in a few days before adjourning until after Labor Day.
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