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Legislation that will fully fund the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9 billion to corral a lengthy maintenance backlog on public land units passed the U.S. House of Representatives late Wednesday and could have a significant impact in North Carolina.
The Great American Outdoors Act passed decisively in the House with a 310-107 bipartisan vote, including support from 82 Republicans.
The bill passed the Senate on June 17, and President Donald Trump tweeted in March that he will sign the bill. The president also tweeted his support of the legislation before the House vote.
The law will fully fund the annual $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund. The legislation also proposed the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, which will provide $9.5 billion over five years to undertake the massive pile of deferred maintenance on federal public land units. A majority of those funds, $6.5 billion, will be dedicated to deferred maintenance projects in national park units.
“This is a win that has been decades in the making,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, based in Asheville.
“Generations of conservationists have sought to fix this mechanism that puts protecting our land and water on an equal footing with other national priorities. It’s also, I hope, a sign that in this broken time, we can come together regardless of party label to achieve great and lasting good for all Americans.”
Established by Congress more than five decades ago, the LWCF invests funds from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. Each year $900 million is deposited in the LWCF account in the federal treasury, though not all of the funds are appropriated for conservation or recreation projects by Congress and can be used for unrelated budget items.
The funds can be allocated to three general purposes: federal land acquisitions; state-level matching grants for outdoor recreation projects, such as ball fields, greenways or swimming pools; and a catchall category referred to as “other federal purposes.”
Luke Weingarten of the North Carolina chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said, “The system of public lands and waters in America is unique in the world and an invaluable legacy each generation bequeaths to the next. Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act with staggering bipartisan unity will stand as a clear message to our children that we fulfilled our duty with earnestness — and that we expect the same of them.”
The last time the LWCF was fully funded was in 1978. Last year, $405 million was diverted to other uses.
Not everyone is a fan of the legislation. Critics have argued that the program is a federal land grab and in need of reform. In Congress, the effort to restructure or eliminate the LWCF has been led by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
During the House debate, he called it the “not so great American outdoors act.”
Bishop said the program is not about funding public lands; rather it’s about “how to find more ways to buy more property. We can’t even afford the property we already have.”
Nevertheless, the legislation has bipartisan support, including Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who said during the floor debate the LWCF “has done important things for my state and our nation in preserving access to public lands and the great outdoors. In North Carolina alone, we have over 260,000 jobs that are directly attributable to the great outdoors.”
The legislation will now advance to President Trump.
“I look forward to building on this moment,” Leutze said.
“The natural world is imperiled by neglect, population growth and even hostility from some. But the coalition that wrote and worked on this legislation proved that nature can and must be a nonpartisan issue. Conservation is good policy, and now, as we have seen, great politics.”
The legislation received the support of eight of North Carolina’s 13-member congressional delegation including all three Democrats and five Republicans. Opposing it were GOP Reps. David Rouzer and Dan Bishop. Two Republican members of the delegation, Reps. George Holding and Richard Hudson, did not cast votes on the bill.
The seat for the 11th District in the state’s mountainous southwest, which includes some of the largest areas of national forests and other public lands, is currently vacant.
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