Last week’s overwhelming Senate approval of the Land and Water Conservation Fund obscures the years of work needed to pass a seemingly unstoppable bill.
“Very few things in the Senate pass with north of 90 votes,” Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said on Saturday. “This had very, very strong bipartisan support. It took public lands to unite divided government.”
S. 47, the omnibus public lands bill that included permanent reauthorization for LWCF, received a 92-8 vote on Tuesday. But that came after three years of limbo and fervent campaigns to restore the program that uses royalties from federal off-shore oil and gas leases to underwrite public lands access projects. It was first approved in 1965 and reauthorized in 1995.
LWCF expired on Sept. 30, 2015, after 50 years. Then-House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, proposed an alternative that would have required reauthorization every seven years, moved nearly all the funding away from federal land acquisition and allowed a third of its revenue to go to Payment in Lieu of Taxes and rebates for oil and gas industry exploration. Almost half the fund would have gone directly to states, communities with populations greater than 20,000 people and urban parks. At the time, Bishop told Politico “the fund has been hijacked by special interests too close to the government and must be reformed.”
That plan got dropped in favor of a three-year extension that kept the bill in its traditional format. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, attempted to permanently reauthorize it, but was unsuccessful.
However, the idea of removing the sunset clause gained traction over subsequent years. Daines signed on to the permanent authorization concept in 2017. He said the Democrats already supported it, so he worked with Republican Sen. Cory Gardener of Colorado to build a coalition on the GOP side.
“It takes years to put together these plans,” Daines said. “If you add uncertainty of an LWCF program that could expire before these land proposals resolve, it puts the overall process at risk. We just take that off the table by permanently authorizing it.”
But if public lands were so popular, why did it take so long to get the program restored? Daines said the workload of the Senate makes it difficult to get anything near the debate time it needs to reach a decision. In addition, he said the body remains bogged down in fights over President Donald Trump’s political appointees.
“There is a huge backlog of nominations to fill of all the deputy secretaries and judges of the Trump administration, and the unprecedented amount of obstruction with cloture votes,” Daines said. “That’s never been seen in the history of the U.S. Senate. That consumes a lot of time in the Senate.”
S. 47 contained nearly 120 separate measures from 43 senators in addition to LWCF. That included about 1 million acres of new wilderness areas, authorization of shooting ranges, accounting requirements for federal payouts in lawsuits, and revocation of mineral rights on 340,000 acres of federal land, including the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act that blocked gold-mining plans in the Paradise Valley. That bill was authored by Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and supported by Daines and Republican Rep. Gianforte.
“They represent hundreds of years of cumulative effort, with collaborative groups working on legislation, then the committee process, negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and then the House,” Daines said. “It takes a long time even for pieces of legislation that are popular.”
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Last December, Daines attempted to get LWCF reauthorization included in a continuing resolution to fund the federal government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t add it. The resolutions failed when Trump refused to sign it, triggering a 34-day government shutdown.
Daines and Tester then pushed for passing the public lands package by unanimous consent. Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee blocked the effort, and the 2018 session expired.
“Mike Lee and I have different views on this,” Daines said. “Utah is about 90 percent public lands already. They don’t have some of those complex land ownership arrangements we have in Montana. We see (LWCF) advantages. Other states don’t see it that way. Lee brings forward what his constituents bring forth from Utah. He doesn’t want to see more dollars spent on increasing public lands.”
After the unanimous-consent push collapsed, Daines and New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked their respective Senate leaders to put the public lands package at the head of the line in 2019. Daines said by coincidence, he was serving as presiding officer of the Senate when the call came to send the bill to the floor.
“When you have respect from your leadership, and you move forward in a bipartisan fashion, it was nice to see them honor their word and move this thing forward,” Daines said. “It was getting bipartisan support, there were no threats, no trades.”
But first, the Senate had to defeat last-minute amendments which Daines feared might have scuttled the whole public lands omnibus. One would have diverted LWCF money to pay for backlogged maintenance in the National Park Service. Another would have exempted Utah from Antiquities Act provisions.
On Tuesday, S. 47 passed the Senate on a 92-8 vote. Daines and Tester both said they expect the House of Representatives to give quick approval, possibly with a voice vote as soon as it reconvenes Tuesday.
In the meantime, Tester served on the conference committee that cobbled together six spending bills for the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, State and Housing and Urban Development, preventing another government shutdown. That included adding an extra $10 million to LWCF’s appropriation, bringing its 2019 allowance to $435 million.
Part of that will pay for Montana projects at Everson Bench, Kootenai Forestland, Beavertail, Swan Range and Clearwater-Blackfoot. It also provided $364.7 million for deferred maintenance in national parks, $1.1 billion for Montana Superfund cleanup work in Libby, Butte, Columbia Falls and Anaconda, and $2 billion for wildfire suppression.
President Trump signed the spending bill on Friday. He is expected to sign S. 47 after it reaches his desk later in February.