In a year with great uncertainty, constant changes, economic uncertainty, relentless media coverage, and to top it off, an election, many politicians are looking for a measure that everyone can agree on and put a feather in their hats in order to report a success back to their constituents.
Most senators and representatives feel they have found this in the Great American Outdoors (GAO) Act (S.3422). On the cover, what is there not to like? It’s been described as a bill that encourages economic growth, supports public lands and waters, and has bipartisan support. Great talking points when politicians return home from the Beltway.
However, as highlighted by a joint letter sent to Congress, there are flaws in this bill. Spearheaded by the Public Lands Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the American Sheep Industry Association, along with 45 other livestock and rancher groups, a joint letter was sent to Congress along with a campaign to try to educate the public.
The bill was aimed at providing dedicated funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanently. Created in 1964 and permanently authorized in 2019, the LWCF was a commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources, cultural heritage, and provide recreation opportunities to all Americans on federal lands.
The LWCF is responsible for repairing roads, trails, bridges, and water structures, sustaining habitats, increasing public access, and creating jobs. These are all needed projects and anyone who has dealt with public lands would agree that these projects are a necessity.
Another selling point is that this bill does not use any new or existing taxpayer funding. Instead, it employs federal revenue from the use of natural resources utilized on federal lands and waters, specifically, offshore drilling. Funds are made available to the National Park Service, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education.
Funding for LWCF has been sporadic and under the GAO Act the maximum allowed budget cap of $900 million would be allocated to this fund each year, with an additional $9.5 billion going to confront the current backlog of projects. In the over 25 years of the LWCF, only twice was the maximum $900 million granted.
Within those allocated funds, the federal agencies are given free rein to spend $360 million per year, or 40 percent, solely to acquire new private land without oversight from Congress. It is already estimated by the LWCF Coalition that there is a current backlog of federal conservation projects to the tune of $30 billion.
Now, I realize that this bill does put a dent in those projects. However, by purchasing more land are we going to have an ever-growing need for these funds that will not be met?
In the past, LWCF has been referred to as a “slush fund,” and back in 2015 Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who was chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, blocked reauthorization because of this fund’s reputation. Through my experience with public lands ranchers, the additional burdens, headaches, and agendas that are thrown in the mix when federal agencies manage land is never as efficient as when that ground is held in private ownership.
Much of the western U.S. is already under the government’s control, with them currently holding a land mass of 640 million acres. The federal government already has more land than it can afford to maintain; it does not make sense to keep adding to this each and every year. With a growing population, the private sector does not need to compete with the government for land. I think considering the current state of affairs and our ever-growing deficit, there could be a better use of these funds.
As of writing, the GAO Act already passed out of the Senate and is heading to the House for consideration. With many congressmen vocalizing support and the bill being championed at the White House level, it seems like this will become law with little resistance. With lack of more opposition, the flaws in this legislation will likely go unvetted, an exceptionally large one in my mind: allowing for land acquisition by the federal government to go unchecked.
Allowing the federal government to purchase more land and assets when it already has its hands full maintaining its current property base seems like a bad idea to me. It feels like this is a move by politicians in contested races to gather more votes in order to get reelected without considering the long-term negative impacts to their states. — DEVIN MURNIN