President Donald Trump poses for a photo during a signing ceremony for H.R. 1957 "The Great American Outdoors Act," in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Washington.
( AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Brigid Bergin: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Brigid Bergen in for Tanzina Vega. Earlier this month, President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, which many have called one of the most significant pieces of conservation legislation in decades. The bill received bipartisan support and will provide up to $9.5 billion over five years for the maintenance of national parks and other public lands. It also gives $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Today we continue our week-long conversation about the national parks by taking a close look at the Great American Outdoors Act with Jimmy Tobias, a writer for The Guardian and contributor at The Nation, where he covers public lands and wildfires. Jimmy told me where the billions of dollars the law dedicates to park maintenance is actually coming from.
Jimmy Tobias: The $9 billion is coming from revenues drawn from industrial energy development on federal lands and waters around the country. Basically, what this bill does is tie maintenance funding for the Park Service and other federal land agencies with oil and gas drilling, mining, and other major industrial activities on federal lands.
Brigid: How did the maintenance of public lands fall so far behind? You've said that Congress wasn't doing its job but to need $9 billion now to fix these issues, will that even be enough given the backlog?
Jimmy: No, the $9 billion will not cover the full cost. I think the parks alone are looking at something like $12 billion in maintenance backlogs. The fact of the matter is that, while Congress is perfectly willing to be generous with certain programs such as the military and the defense contractors and such, when it comes to things like public lands, they just never seem to have quite enough money to cover the bills for these beloved public institutions, and that's a disappointment. This bill is trying to address that, but I think some critics argued that this isn't the right way to go about it.
Brigid: The Great American Outdoors Act will also provide 900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Can you tell me what the Land and Water Conservation Fund is?
Jimmy: Yes. This is the aspect of the bill that I personally feel and others feel is an unmitigated good. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1965. What it does is it takes royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling, and puts them towards buying new public lands, building new parks, building fishing access sites, and supposed to be funded at $900 million a year, but for years, Congress has raided the fund. It's never really lived up to its promise. It's never put the adequate amount of money in there. The key part of this bill that I think one Democratic support, what it does is permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Brigid: You've started to mention with some of the critics have said about the Great American Outdoors Act. Are conservationists and environmental advocates happy with the Great American Outdoors Act?
Jimmy: I think what one support from green groups and Democrats was the full and permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That's something they'd fought for for years, and they could never really take it across the finish line. I think what really got the Republicans and the oil and gas industry on board is they're creating this new fund where now they can go out there and say, revenues from the oil and gas industry is fixing our national parks.
That's a great talking point for people like Cory Gardner, who is a key sponsor of this bill, the Senator from Colorado; and Steve Daines, the Senator from Montana, both of whom are facing very tough reelection fights against Democrats in states where public lands issues are very important. Both of these senators have bad conservation records, very low scores from the League of Conservation Voters, and now they got this bill across the finish line that raises the profile of the oil and gas industry, allows them to talk about how they're funding the parks. They're already out there running ads and talking on the stump about how they save the park system. I think that's really what got them on board and with them the Trump administration.
Brigid: As an example of somehow, the Republicans are embracing this. I want to play a clip for you of what President Trump had to say when he signed the Act earlier this month.
President Trump (speech): The legislation I'm signing today builds on my administration's unwavering commitment to conserving the grandeur and the splendor of God's creation.
Brigid: Jimmy, would you say the Trump administration has shown an unwavering commitment to conservation?
Jimmy: I don't think anyone who's been following this administration can say that with a straight face. The Interior Department under President Trump has rolled back key and dangerous species protection, has eliminated national monuments, has put committed anti-public land activists in charge of key agencies that oversee our federal lands. That doesn't pass the smell test at all.
Brigid: Are you seeing other politicians, or oil and gas companies use the passage of this legislation to essentially greenwash their past and present actions?
Jimmy: Yes, I think that that's a big part of what's going on here. The oil and gas industry, you see them on social media talking about how they're helping to save the parks. You see Steve Daines in Montana talking about this bill. I think this is very much an election year kind of bill. The reason it got bipartisan support is because people are so desperate to fix the public lands. They're in such bad shape that a lot of green groups who have spent the last four years losing constantly couldn't say no, but it just speaks to the dire situation for public lands and the conservation movement that they had to accept this bill.
Brigid: When you think about how much neglect these public lands have endured, what do you think about in terms of the long-term ramifications of putting private oil and gas companies in charge of funding repairs to these public lands?
Jimmy: This is part of a broader trend of park privatization. The Trump administration has been pursuing policies that increasingly put commercial interests including concessionaires and big resource like Vail and others in charge of the management of key park facilities. At the same time, the administration has opened up the parks to telecom giants like Verizon and AT&T, who are building out huge networks of cell towers and things like that in our parks. This bill extends that privatization logic as even Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has implicitly acknowledged.
Rather than Congress doing its job in appropriating adequate funds to actually repair and run our parks, it has to turn to revenues from a single private industry to do so in an industry that does not have a very good environmental record. That's big oil. I think this isn't exactly great news for the parks. Everyone wants to see the backlog fixed. Everyone wants to see the Land and Water Conservation Fund fully and permanently funded but to give big oil the privilege of being able to go out there to the public and say, we saved the parks, I think that's supercharging our President, that maybe isn't so good for our public lands.
Brigid: Jimmy Tobias writes for The Guardian, and is a contributor at The Nation where he covers public lands and wildlife. Jimmy, thanks so much for talking with me.
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