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Up is down. Black is white. Two plus two equals…five? Hold onto your hats, folks, because Rob Bishop (R.-Utah) is becoming a champion of the environment.
On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Committee, which Bishop chairs, has moved forward with two landmark bills: one would fund the National Park Service’s $12 billion maintenance backlog and the other would do the same for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The bills will now move to the House for a vote.
Together, the two proposals could have monumental effects on our public lands. That they have Bishop's backing is even more consequential. Not only does his support make it more likely that the two bills will clear the GOP-controlled Congress, but it also removes what was previously the largest obstacle to LWCF funding: Bishop himself.
To recap, Bishop (a politician many environmentalists consider public enemy number one) has a long history in Congress of working against public lands. He advocated to roll back the Endangered Species Act and was one of the chief proponents of reducing Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments. “He really has been the hurdle” to permanently fund the LWCF, according to an outdoor-recreation industry professional who asked to remain anonymous.
Yet Bishop's H.R. 502 proposes permanent re-authorization of the LWCF. And the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, which Bishop is also sponsoring, would devote half of all revenue from energy production on federal lands to funding the National Park Service and other agencies.
LWCF is significant because it funds land acquisition and easements for conservation and projects on those lands. It does that using a percentage of offshore drilling revenue. Its funding is essential for public access to federal lands, yet it’s been used as a political football by both parties. By permanently re-authorizing the fund, Bishop will be taking a major step forward to ensure that future generations of Americans can continue to recreate outdoors.
Why the change in thinking? I reached out to Bishop’s office and they gave me this quote from the Congressman: “My reservations about the program have never been about the goals of LWCF, rather I’ve been frustrated that the implementation of the program fell short of the law’s intended purpose. Despite the statute’s successes and recognition of the benefit of using public land development to fund recreation and conservation investments, reform is needed to ensure LWCF benefits local priorities to the fullest extent possible. This bill, along with additional action we took today, ensures that Congress adequately funds the lands it already owns and realigns the Fund back to its original goal of ensuring that hunters, fishermen, and families have access to recreational activities.”
He spoke more clearly about funding national parks: “We have a moral responsibility to ensure that we maintain them and that we maintain what we have before we add to that burden. And that’s what this bill attempts to do.”
Due to Bishop’s history with environmental and public lands laws—and the $400,000 he’s taken from oil and gas in the last 15 years—I was a skeptical of his intentions. Could attaching national park and public lands funding to oil and gas extraction incentivize increased oil and gas production or more deregulation of that industry? It appears as if language that could have done just that has been stripped from the newest versions of these bills. Unlike Secretary of the Interior Zinke's proposal, they outline a proposal to draw funding from existing oil and gas revenues, rather than require new ones. “Today’s bill does not condition money for parks on increased energy production,” says Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona),” the bills' co-sponsor. “That was not a trade-off that needed to be made.”
So far, the reception to the bills appears to be uniformly positive among both Democrats and Republicans, hunters and outdoor industry representatives. “No bad amendments passed,” the anonymous outdoor industry professional texted me. “Clean bill passed.”
Should we get used to the idea of Rob Bishop, Champion of the Environment? We'll see. In the meantime, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic right now.