Senate approves $2.8 billion plan to boost conservation, parks

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2018 file photo, emigrant Peak is seen rising above the Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River near Emigrant, Mont. Lawmakers have reached bipartisan agreement on an election-year deal to double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

WASHINGTON - The Senate has approved a bipartisan bill that would double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks.

The 73-25 vote on Wednesday sends the Great American Outdoors Act to the House, where approval is expected. It would be the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century. The bill would spend about $2.8 billion per year on conservation, outdoor recreation and park maintenance.

"America's hundreds of millions of acres of public lands are the result of hundreds of years of exploration and conservation," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell, R-Ky.

The Senate vote will "ensure this inheritance will stand the test of time for generations of Americans yet to come," McConnell said, urging the House to pass it quickly.

The legislation includes Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander's bill to restore the country's 419 national parks and cut in half the national parks' $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, which the senator said will be "the biggest boost to our national parks in 50 years." It also fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanently, a goal of Congress since 1964.

"The Great American Outdoors Act is the most important conservation and outdoor recreation legislation in the last half century," reads a statement issued by Alexander's office. "Today, too many of our national parks are in bad shape, and American families visiting those parks are often shocked to find that so many of the roads, picnic areas, trails, campgrounds and visitor centers are in such bad condition or even closed. This bipartisan bill will cut in half the $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks, including $224 million in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will also reduce maintenance backlogs at our national forests and refuges.

"Here is what this means for Tennessee - it means that places like the beautiful Look Rock Campground in the Smokies, which has been closed for several years because the sewage system doesn't work, will have the resources needed to reopen so the 5,000 families who camp there each year can continue to enjoy it. And the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee, which suffers from a $27 million deferred maintenance backlog and welcomes more visitors each year than most of the western national parks, will have its roads and trails restored. And then in West Tennessee, the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, which has about $8 million of maintenance work that needs to be done on boat ramps and boat docks, will receive the support it needs as well."

Alexander continued, "It will also fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), an unrealized goal of Congress and the conservation community since 1964. Fully funding the LWCF was also a recommendation of President Reagan's Commission on Americans Outdoors, which I chaired in 1985."

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., one of the bill's chief sponsors, said the bill will create at least 100,000 jobs, while restoring national parks and repairing trails and forest systems.

Those measures are especially needed now, when communities surrounded by public lands have high unemployment rates because of shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Gardner said. "This is an economic and jobs package as much as it is a conservation package," he said, adding that Americans who have been shut in by the pandemic "are ready to get into the great outdoors."

Sen. Steven Daines, R-Mont., who has pushed for the bill with Gardner, said it "will help protect public access to our public lands and supports our national parks. It preserves and protects our Montana outdoor way of life."

Gardner and Daines are among the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents, and each represents a state where the outdoor economy and tourism at sites such as Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks play an outsize role.

The lawmakers persuaded President Donald Trump to support the bill even though he repeatedly tried to slash spending for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals. Trump has tweeted in favor of the lands bill, saying it "will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands."

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said permanently and fully funding that fund "will be a monumental victory for conservation and the places where we all get outside." He cited studies showing that each dollar spent by the fund creates an additional four dollars in economic value.

Heinrich said visitors cannot enjoy national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite "if the bathrooms don't work, if the trails and campgrounds aren't open, or if the roads are in disrepair. These places that we all cherish deserve better."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., credited a "new coalition" of lawmakers from both parties who support conservation and public lands.

"We've made people aware of the juggernaut that the outdoors economy has been," Cantwell said, noting statistics showing that outdoor recreation and tourism support $887 billion a year in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs, much of it in the West.

"America deserves a break right now, and the outdoors is restorative, Cantwell said.

photo FILE - In this May 18, 2020 photo, visitors watch as Old Faithful erupts on the day the park partially reopened after a two-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, at Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Lawmakers have reached bipartisan agreement on an election-year deal to double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks. (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP, File)