The Great American Outdoors Act has passed the Senate with solid bipartisan support – but bipartisan doesn’t mean unanimous. A group of 73 voted yes while 25 voted no, including all of the senators from public land-heavy Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
Among other things, the Act would pay off the approximate $12 billion maintenance backlog across national parks and would fully, permanently fund the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund.
That fund was created in 1964 to use royalties from offshore oil and gas production for things like park creation, conservation and development. It has rarely been fully funded as the oil and gas revenues are often used elsewhere.
Those behind the bill were ecstatic, like Montana Senator Steve Daines who released a statement stating, “Today, we passed the most important conservation bill for Montana and the nation in decades — one that will increase public access to our public lands, support our national parks and importantly, protect our Montana outdoor way of life.”
However, those who voted against it had several concerns.
Senator Mike Enzi in Wyoming voted no after a proposed amendment to increase park fees and prices for certain foreign visitor visas wasn’t added in. Without that change, he feared it would add to the federal deficit.
“If we keep adding new mandatory spending without adding new revenue, Congress will be forced at some point to eliminate mandatory spending or get new funding streams that survive well into the future,” he said on the Senate floor.
Then there was the fact that the bill would lead to more acreage becoming federally-owned public land, a controversial topic for many western lawmakers, including those like Utah’s Mitt Romney and Idaho’s Mike Crapo.
Crapo was also disappointed the bill didn’t include permanent funding for programs that help fund schools and projects in areas surrounded by public land.
“Instead of focusing primarily on acquiring more lands, federal conservation dollars should go toward maintaining the lands the federal government already owns,” he stated. “Moreover, Congress missed a great opportunity to include permanent reauthorizations of the Secure Rural Schools and Payment In Lieu of Taxes programs that help meet the federal obligation to rural counties that house federal land.”
Regardless, the bill now heads to the House, where it’s expected to pass again with bipartisan support before stopping on the president’s desk. President Donald Trump has signaled he’ll sign it into law once it’s there.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.