The Energy 202: The Senate just saved a popular park conservation fund

The Senate just passed the largest public lands bill in a decade on Tuesday, a rare bipartisan package that will impose more stringent federal protections for millions of acres and hundreds of miles of wild rivers across the country.

Perhaps the most significant change the legislation would make is permanently authorizing a popular federal program, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that funnels offshore drilling revenue to conserve a spread of sites that includes everything from major national parks and wildlife preserves to local baseball diamonds and basketball courts.

“We have finally permanently reauthorized LWCF so our land management agencies can operate fully and without the fear of losing access to the funding they rely on,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said after the vote.

As Juliet Eilperin and I report, the reauthorization was part of a sweeping bill that classified 1.3 million acres as wilderness, giving them the nation’s most stringent protections that prohibit even roads and motorized vehicles. The bill also permanently withdraws more than 370,000 acres of land from mining around two national parks, including Yellowstone.

In an era where horse-trading has become elusive on Capitol Hill, this package is crammed full of provisions in an effort to garner nearly every senator’s vote. The 662-page measure passed the Senate in a 92-8 vote. The lower chamber is poised to take it up after the mid-February recess, and White House officials have indicated privately that the president will sign it.

Authorization for the LWCF lapsed months ago due to the partial government shutdown and other disputes. Liberals like the fact that the money allows agencies to set aside land for wildlife habitat. Conservatives like the fact that taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for it.

But while Congress is now set to reauthorize the fund in perpetuity, it will not make its spending mandatory.

Mandatory spending was something conservationists were seeking given the history of the program. Congressional funding for LWCF has “fluctuated widely” since its inception in 1965, according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report. Less than half of the $40 billion that has piled up in the fund during its five decades of existence has been spent by Congress on conservation efforts.

“We wish we would have gotten it, but it’s still a big win,” said Jonathan Asher, a government relations manager at the Wilderness Society who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration. “There are plenty of members of Congress that want mandatory funding, but it’s a longer, heavier lift.”

It’s a lift, though, that some in the Senate are already preparing to make again — especially after control of the House changed hands from Democrats to Republicans.

Even though the package that passed the Senate is the largest public lands bill in years, one of its co-authors, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), thinks Congress can soon get another bite at the apple with regard to not only giving LWCF mandatory funding, but also creating another long-awaited fund for maintaining existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure in national parks.

“There’s bite two is coming,” Cantwell said before the vote. “Some people tried to marry all of that together, and the complexity of how to do that with last year’s House just wasn’t happening.”

There was clearly some apetite for mandatory funding in the Senate last year. A bill from Cantwell giving LWCF mandatory funding passed out of Energy and Natural Resources in a 16-7 vote in October, with Murkowski and some other Republicans voting against it over concerns about automatically funding the program — even though she supported permanent reauthorization.

“That may be something you see coming from the House,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who co-wrote the major public lands bill with Cantwell, said after the vote on Tuesday. “It was clear that there was a divide here in the Senate.”