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US Senate backs Manchin bill to conserve land, promote recreation, maintain national parks

MORGANTOWN — The U.S. Senate is on the verge of passing a historic bill introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Its a bill that will protect land and water, support all sorts of outdoor recreation and put money into maintaining deteriorating national parks, which face a $21 billion maintenance backlog.

It’s called the Great American Outdoors Act. Manchin talked about the bill during a Thursday press briefing.

It does two things. One, it mandates that Congress must fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LCF) at $900 million per year.

Two, it establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands. For Fiscal Years 2021 through 2025, it requires Congress to deposit into the fund an amount equal to 50% of all federal revenues from the development of oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy on federal lands and waters, for up to $1.9 billion per year.

The LWCF was created by Congress in 1964 to protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects, according to the LWCF website. It also provides grants to protect working forests, wildlife habitat, critical drinking water supplies and disappearing battlefields, as well as increased use of easements.

Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are supposed to be put into the fund. However, Manchin said, Congress has fully funded it only twice since its inception.

Congress regularly siphons off huge portions for other projects, the LWCF website says: a total $22.3 billion since it was created. For FY 2020, Congress appropriated only $495 million to LWCF, the highest amount in 15 years.

Since 1964, West Virginia has received $246.2 million from LWCF to protect such places as the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge, Harpers Ferry National Historic park and the Monongahela National Forest. There are LWCF-funded projects in every county. Current LWCF funding in Monongalia County totals $1.4 million; in Preston, $1.7 million.

“This is a great piece of legislation,” Manchin said. It has 60 co-sponsors: 44 Democrats, 16 Republicans, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Although Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., is named as lead sponsor on the bill, Manchin has been working it for 10 years, people who have followed its progress said. It was introduced in March and Gardner helped raise Republican support.

The bill cleared a procedural hurdle on Tuesday when the Senate voted 80-17 to take up the bill. A few western and coastal senators are discontent, Manchin said, because some amendments for their priorities weren’t included, but he’s working with them to get those measures in other bills.

He expects the Senate to pass it next week. He and other supporters want it passed without amendments so that the House won’t be tempted to tack on measures and bog it to death.

In answer to a question from The Dominion Post, Manchin said President Trump supports it without amendment and has even tweeted about it. Also, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed it. Both of those actions have help garner Republican support.

There are economic advantages to the bill, too, Manchin said. Fully funding the LWCF could create 15,000 to 28,000 jobs. Investing in and fixing national parks could create 110,000 plus jobs, In 2019 national parks saw 328 million visitors who spent $21 billion in local gateway regions.

Some out west have worried, Manchin said, that the bill is a means for the federal government to buy up more land. It’s not. He’s not for expanding federal ownership. “I am for expanding federal usership.”

Beth Wheatley, with West Virginia’s Nature Conservancy chapter, said during the briefing, “There’s a piece of this that’s important to everyone in West Virginia.” Outdoor recreation and tourism generates $9 billion in annual spending in the state, and supports 91,000 jobs.

She cited the New River Gorge scene on the back of the state quarter as an example of the Conservancy working with the U.S. Park Service to preserve that scene and open its recreational access to the river to support the economy there.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, called the bill timely as people cope with COVID-19. “We’re seeing more than ever a renewed appreciation for having outdoor space in the midst of a pandemic,.” She cited surveys that showed that four out of five West Virginia voters agree that we can protect land and water and have good jobs at the same time

Capito commented on the bill in an email exchange. “Preserving our public lands for future generations is critical for both the economy and environment,” she said. “Our outdoor recreation industry supports thousands of jobs and brings in billions to our state’s economy. The Great American Outdoors Act will support that industry while protecting and maintaining federal, state, and private lands.

“It also includes provisions I have long championed to address the millions of dollars in deferred maintenance on National Park Service and Forest Service lands in our state,” she said. “West Virginia is rich with natural resources and beauty, and by prioritizing these conservation efforts, we may finally get a handle on the backlog of federal land projects. The bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act is a win across the board and helps keep West Virginia wild and wonderful for years to come.”

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