Federal parks get massive shore-up from Trump, but need billions more

President Donald Trump signs the H.R. 1957 – The Great American Outdoors Act, in the East Room of the White House, on Tuesday. (Alex Brandon/AP photo via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump signed legislation Tuesday that pumps billions into long-neglected national parks and props up a decades-old fund with revenue generated from offshore oil and gas drilling.

“From just the beauty of our country standpoint, there hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt I suspect,” President Trump said of the Great American Outdoors Act, speaking at a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House where he was surrounded by at least a dozen officials, with varying usage of masks to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The Senate passed the legislation 73–25 in June, and the House did so as well last week 310–107.

In addition to allocating $9.5 billion over the next five years for park maintenance backlogs, the newly minted law makes $900 million available annually and permanently to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The National Park Service estimated last year that it needs roughly $12 billion to address maintenance issues from 2019 alone.

Estimates for 2020 have yet to be released, and a representative for the department has not returned a request for comment.

During the federal government shutdown last April, maintenance issues fell into sharp relief when Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt opted to draw on reserve funds so that national parks could stay open to the public while lawmakers negotiated on Capitol Hill.

Left largely unsupervised, the grounds at Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks were damaged by visitors prompting the Interior’s Deputy Director Dan Smith to undergo scrutiny by the House on how the agency imagined it would address new damages let alone old ones, without consistent or greater levels of funding.

Maintenance backlogs have for years been a thorn in the side of conservationists, environmentalists and federal park officials alike, bringing them regularly before Congress  to request assistance addressing damaged or deteriorating trails, park facilities, visitors centers, bridges, battlefields and more.

On a call with reporters Tuesday ahead of the signing ceremony, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said the department would prepare a report for Congress in 90 days outlining how appropriations have been sorted so far.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was first created 55 years ago and has only been vested with the full $900 million annual maximum twice since that time. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence slammed former President Barack Obama’s administration saying the condition of national parks fell to the wayside.

“Those days are over,” Pence said.

Interior Secretary Bernhardt echoed those sentiments from the East Room Tuesday noting that five presidents, nine secretaries of the Interior and 10 secretaries of the Department of Agriculture have called unsucessfully for permanent appropriations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Only one president has gotten that done and that is you. The reality is, absent your call for bold leadership, this bill would not have become law despite the efforts of everyone else, and I want you to know America will deeply, deeply appreciate it,” Bernhardt said.

Trump said the legislation is a “defense of our national heritage” and America’s “stunning beauty.”

More than 800 environmental and conservation groups supported passage of the Great American Outdoors Act before it was signed into law. Among them, the nonprofit Public Lands Alliance has, for the last 40 years, raised over $200 million to support land management initiatives on a state and local level.

Dan Puskar, Public Lands Alliance president and CEO, said that the timing of the law’s passage was important given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“It will increase recreational opportunities and outdoor spaces … at a time when Americans need to exercise, play and socially distance responsibly,” Puskar said in an email Tuesday.

And while the legislation may not address “every issue that impacts public lands,” Puskar noted, it is important to recognize how historic it is in both its breadth and impact.

“People will cite this legislation when arguing why any of its lead sponsors has left a meaningful legacy in Congress,” Puskar said.

Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana — both of whom are in vulnerable seats this year — sponsored the bill. Senator Rob Portman also threw support behind the measure by incorporating his own similar deferred maintenance legislation known as the Restore Our Park Act into the Great American Outdoors Act.

In remarks from the White House Tuesday, the Ohio Republican noted that “some felt strongly” that oil and gas offshore revenues could have been better spent elsewhere.

But the debt owed to the Land and Water Conservation Fund went “unpaid” for too long, Portman said.

“This funding was appropriate based on how oil and gas royalties were originally envisioned going toward our natural resources and environment,” Portman said.

Trump, as he heaped praised on Gardner, Daines and Portman, told the GOP lawmakers to spend the annual $900 million investment wisely.

“I know you’ll spend it very wisely because if you do, you can do five times more than what you think,” Trump said.

During Tuesday’s ceremony, the president lauded his daughter and special adviser, Ivanka Trump, as instrumental to the legislation’s passage.

It is unclear what specific role Ivanka Trump played in negotiations but last week, when she appeared at Rocky Mountain National Park alongside Interior Secretary Bernhardt for a closed-to-the-public celebration of the bill’s congressional approval, he also credited her involvement. Not present at that event were any of the bill’s actual sponsors.

Invoking former President Teddy Roosevelt’s passage of the Antiquities Act, which created much of the national park system as it is known today, Ivanka Trump said Tuesday: “The first 100 years of conservation that his legislation ensured will be preserved for at least another 100 years.”

Though the Trump-approved legislation allocates significant funding for preservation and conservation of national parks, its benefits are weighed against the administration’s active, years-long campaign to rollback a slew of environmental protections that ultimately preserve the very land and water found in the nation’s parks and refuges.

As of mid-July, according to a tracker first published by The New York Times, the Trump administration has completed 68 environmental rollbacks successfully and has 32 now pending.