Zinke 'supportive' of LWCF but gives budget the ax

While the Trump administration offered a tepid vision for the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in its fiscal 2019 budget proposal — slashing the program's acquisition budget by 95 percent — the Interior Department insisted Secretary Ryan Zinke remains a steadfast supporter.

The LWCF — which uses nontaxpayer dollars to preserve and maintain national parks, forests, recreation areas and cultural sites — is set to expire Oct. 1 unless lawmakers reauthorize it. The program, created by Congress in 1965, lapsed in 2015 before receiving a three-year extension.

In President Trump's budget request released yesterday, the administration noted the LWCF's looming deadline but did not appear to be pressing for its salvation, stating only: "The administration will review options for reauthorization."

That language accompanies a second year of proposed cuts to the program as the White House focuses on addressing a maintenance backlog of federal lands rather than acquiring new property (Greenwire, Feb. 12).

The president's proposal would slash the Interior Department's budget for land acquisition — including the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service — to 5 percent of its current status, or down to $8.1 million in fiscal 2019 from its previous $154 million budget.

Conservation advocates seized on those cuts yesterday to accuse Zinke of reversing his former support for LWCF, pointing to remarks made during his Senate confirmation hearing last year.

Jonathan Asher, senior representative for government relations at the Wilderness Society, called the cut "weird, and particularly disheartening, especially since [Secretary] Zinke used to be such a champ" of the fund.

During that hearing, Zinke told Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R), for example, that he would support making the LWCF a permanent program.

"You have my full commitment," Zinke said. "It is an important program, especially in the West. In Montana, it is particularly important in public access. The checkerboard system out West has made it difficult sometimes to transit between Forest Service and BLM, and you need a bridge to go between the two, and the LWCF has been important in doing that."

But Zinke also stated in that hearing he would support revising how the LWCF is funded, noting Gulf states have argued the program does not benefit them although it is primarily paid for with proceeds from offshore oil and gas drilling.

"I do think we need to look at revenues and evening out the revenue source," Zinke said at the time.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift dismissed suggestions Zinke has pulled back his defense of the program, stating, "The secretary remains supportive of LWCF."

Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress, argued the proposed LWCF budget suggests otherwise.

"The budget is a statement of priorities, and what they are contemplating here is eliminating the Land and Water Conservation Fund as we know it," she said, later adding, "In 2018, when LWCF is facing conversation on the Hill about reauthorization, this is an important statement from the administration about the future of the program from their perspective."

Congressional debate

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, used the budget to reiterate that his own proposal to reauthorize LWCF remains without a hearing.

The Democrat introduced H.R. 502 more than a year ago, and the measure — which would permanently authorize LWCF — has attracted 218 co-sponsors, enough to pass a House vote. That list includes 26 Republican lawmakers.

But while committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has also endorsed reauthorizing LWCF, he has vowed to introduce his own legislation and has not scheduled a hearing on Grijalva's in the meantime.

Grijalva slammed Trump's budget proposal overall, accusing the White House of easing the way to dispose of the federal estate while also making it more difficult to acquire inholdings or access for hunting and recreation.

"It's like the president has been watching too many President's Day sale ads and now he thinks everything must go," Grijalva said in a statement. "We can only hope it's because he thinks he and his allies in Congress may be losing their lease."

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D) also slammed the proposed cuts to LWCF, stating on social media the reductions would "wipe out" the program and affect the outdoor recreation industry and related jobs.

"This is an assault on our #NationalParks & #PublicLands, treasured places that belong to all Americans," Udall wrote on Twitter.

By:  Jennifer Yachnin
Source: E&E News