The Bipartisan Power of the Outdoors

Just before the November election, Congress came together behind increased funding for a program that has helped protect natural places from Devil’s Lake to the Apostle Islands and thousands of areas like them around the country. Just in time, because the pandemic has spurred a renaissance in Americans’ love of the outdoors.

By Spencer Black

It’s often said that elections have consequences. Obviously the most important consequence comes on Election Day when the people choose who will control the government.  A less obvious consequence, but one that is sometimes just as important, is when the prospect of an upcoming election compels politicians to reverse course. 

A clear illustration of this political fact of life occurred just before the November election, when Republicans dropped their long standing opposition to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Donald Trump went along even though he has tried to kill the fund. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the one of our most important conservation programs.  Established in 1965, it uses fees and royalties from off shore drilling to fund land acquisition for National Parks and Forests and to assist state and local conservation and park programs.  

Spencer Black

Wisconsin has benefitted greatly from the program.  Since its inception, our state has received over $200 million.  Areas protected using LWCF funds include Lake Kegonsa, Devils Lake and High Cliff State Parks and the Chippewa Flowage. Local governments have used the federal funding to expand parks and other recreational facilities.  In addition, many federal areas in Wisconsin have been improved with the funds: Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest, the Ice Age and North Country National Scenic Trails, the St. Croix National Scenic River and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

While revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling were promised to the LWCF, Congress has repeatedly raided those funds for other purposes. In all, $22 billion has been diverted from the LWCF trust fund by Congress over the program’s lifetime.  The fund has time and again come under attack from anti-conservation Republicans who have tried to cut or eliminate funding or even terminate the program altogether.  Typical rhetoric of Republicans was a Utah Congressman who called LCWF “a slush fund.”  In his last budget, Donald Trump proposed that all funding for the program be discontinued.  

However, the looming prospect of an electoral defeat can do wonders.  Two western Republican Senators, both facing tough reelection contests, used the threat of losing the Senate majority to enlist some of their recalcitrant GOP colleagues to join Democrats in support of legislation dubbed “The Great American Outdoors Act.”  The new law will permanently guarantee that the full funding originally promised, $900 million a year, will be available for conservation projects. In addition, another $1.9 billion per year for the next 5 years will be spent to address decaying infrastructure at national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges.

While Americans have long cherished the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, that need has come into sharper focus during the current pandemic.  Anyone who has ventured into our crowded parks or trails recently has experienced how important the opportunity for outdoor recreation and appreciation of nature is now.

While the Great American Outdoors Act is an important victory for conservation, it will not undo the tremendous environmental damage perpetuated by the Trump administration.  Trump has attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands.  Two former Interior Secretaries recently wrote, “Measured by the public lands and waters he has removed from protection, Trump stands out as the most anti-nature president in US history.  The Great American Outdoors Act is merely a Band-Aid.”

It is indeed ironic that Republicans voted for and Trump signed legislation to fund LWCF after years of trying to do just the opposite.  But that is the power of an upcoming election.  Sometimes, politicians don’t see the light until they feel the heat.

Spencer Black served in the Wisconsin Assembly for a quarter century, ending with his retirement in 2011. Black is arguably the most consequential Wisconsin environmental policy maker during that period, authoring or being the key player in the state’s landmark recycling law, the Stewardship land conservation program and the protection of the free-flowing and scenic Lower Wisconsin Riverway, among other accomplishments. He served on the national board of the Sierra Club. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Cap Times.

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