Congressional Democrats are using a multi-billion-dollar backlog on public lands maintenance to push for expanding the federal estate using oil and gas royalties while attempting to block measures that would devote the same payments from directly addressing the backlog.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will testify before the House Natural Resources Committee Thursday to defend President Donald Trump’s administration’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2019. Zinke made breaking the $16 billion deferred maintenance backlog a top priority, and the budget introduces a number of measures to deal with it.
The proposal creates the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, which would use royalties from onshore and offshore energy development to pay for maintenance on public lands infrastructure. Congressional Democrats have criticized the fund, calling it “backward.”
“Our most treasured places now depend on the energy industry for their success and their failure, that’s putting things backwards,” Democratic Rep. and House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raul Grijalva said at a congressional hearing March 6th.
“We should not have expanded drilling in the Arctic, off the coast of Florida or anywhere else to save our parks. That is a false choice,” he said, referencing the administration’s “Energy Dominance” agenda, which includes opening an oil reserve in Alaska and parts of the Outer Continental Shelf to onshore and offshore oil development. “We don’t have to risk destroying our parks in order to save them.”
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While fighting the administration’s proposal, Grijalva is pushing a bipartisan bill solidifying a 1964 program that primarily uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to purchase land and expand national parks and wilderness areas. The FY19 budget proposal undercuts what Grijalva hopes to accomplish with his bill, reorienting the Land and Water Conservation Fund to prioritize paying down the backlog rather than buying more land.
“What it basically does is eliminates all funding from federal land acquisition,” Grijalva said at last week’s hearing. “It undermines 50 plus years of success of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and land acquisition, which, I think, is an important tool that makes management more efficient and does increase access to our public land.”
The Department of Interior’s deferred maintenance backlog grew 25 percent between 2006 and 2016. The DOI added 26 more national parks from 2000 to 2016. Many were paid for via offshore royalties from the LWCF, according to the Property and Environment Resource Center.
PERC Executive Director Reed Watson spoke to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2015 while Congress was debating on whether to recertify and reform the LWCF. It would “threaten the ecological health, public accessibility and economic productivity of these precious lands” by continually expanding the federal estate without addressing the current mismanagement, Watson said.
“Conservation, at its core, is about the care and maintenance of the land,” Watson added. “Spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the LWCF to expand the federal estate when we are currently failing to maintain the existing federal estate is not responsible conservation.”