Less than a month after America’s longest government shutdown, the US Senate offered a glimmer of bipartisan hope in the form of a significant public lands package that passed with overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle.
The broad legislation — which would protect millions of acres around the country — passed in the Senate 92-8 on Feb. 12 and is expected to find support in the House once legislators return from this past week’s recess.
Importantly, the bill includes a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a valuable program that has supported land conservation in Maine and around the country for decades.
LWCF, which began in 1964, has funded hundreds of projects in Maine, primarily smaller in size. Money from the program has helped communities across the state build parks and recreational facilities such as ball fields, swimming pools and tennis courts. It has also helped pay for dozens of boat launches and small public beaches.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, LWCF has provided nearly $4 billion in state grants and supported more than 40,000 state conservation projects, helping to protect almost 2.4 million acres.
An overview from the Congressional Research Service explains how almost all LWCF funding comes from revenues generated by oil and gas lease revenues. Despite having that longstanding and sensible funding source, legislators still unwisely allowed LWCF authorization to lapse this fall, missing out on opportunities for conservation investment. The Senate-passed bill would be a much-needed, albeit late correction to that mistake.
“LWCF has helped protect some of Maine’s most treasured landscapes – from Acadia National Park and the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge to numerous state parks around Maine including, Camden Hills, Popham Beach, Mount Blue, Two Lights, and Rangeley Lake,” said Emmie Theberge, the Federal Director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, in a press release from Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King after the Feb. 12 vote.
Both Collins and King have pushed for LWCF reauthorization and supported the public lands package earlier this month, also touting the inclusion of their legislation to clarify the borders of Acadia National Park and to expand and allow traditional marine harvesting to continue along the park’s shoreline.
Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden have a corresponding Acadia bill, and it’s an issue Pingree previously worked on with former Rep. Bruce Poliquin as well.
Spokespeople for Pingree and Golden indicated they both strongly support reauthorizing LWCF, and will vote for the public lands package when it comes before the House of Representatives.
Passage of the bill, and the reauthorization of LWCF, would be a good thing for Maine communities and the state’s outdoor economy, which generates over $8 billion each year according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
As part of LWCF reauthorization, Maine is also positioned to potentially benefit from the Forest Legacy Program, a subset of LWCF that in 2015 former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration declined to participate in. Gov. Janet Mills has indicated that the state is making a welcome shift away from turning down federal funding opportunities, specifically mentioning the Forest Legacy Program in her Feb. 11 budget address to the Maine Legislature.
Because of Maine’s vast amount of working forestland, it actually has the most land protected through the Forest Legacy Program of any state. Maine has received more than $76 million in federal funding from the program since 1990, protecting nearly 740,000 acres of land through conservation easements and purchases.
The public lands bill, headed next for the House of Representatives, is much more than a permanent LWCF reauthorization, to be sure. It creates several national monuments and addresses some long standing conservation issues across America. And interestingly, it represents an old-school approach to legislation that provides members of Congress with home state wins — like we would see in Maine.
“It touches every state, features the input of a wide coalition of our colleagues, and has earned the support of a broad, diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands, economic development and conservation,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky who voted for the bill.
Reauthorizing an important, demonstrably successful initiative like the Land and Water Conservation Fund well after it expired isn’t exactly a landmark legislative achievement — and should have been done months ago. But in a Washington climate where even small bipartisan victories seem like an endangered species, the momentum behind this public lands bill is a breath of fresh air.