This week, the Senate advanced by a 73-25 vote the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), which would fully fund the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The goal of the bill is to address the maintenance backlog at the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. However, many livestock groups warn that it will “sentence hundreds of millions of acres of American land and water to a poorly managed future.”
Ahead of the vote, the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), the American Sheep Industry Assn. (ASI), the Public Lands Council (PLC) and many other affiliate organizations wrote to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee chair Lisa Murkowski (R., Ala.) and the committee's ranking member Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) urging Congress to retain its role in safeguarding public lands by opposing GAOA (S. 3422).
GAOA, as written, creates more than $14 billion in new, mandatory spending and gives federal agencies free rein to spend $360 million per year solely to acquire new private land without any oversight from Congress. This raises concern among the 48 livestock and natural resource groups that signed the joint letter, with the groups pointing out the blatant conflict created by pairing the mounting disrepair of current land under federal control and allowing rampant acquisition without accounting for management of future land acquisitions.
GAOA provides for $900 million in mandatory funding for LWCF as a whole, meaning that at least 40%, or $360 million, each year will be eligible to buy land resources across the country. “The federal government already owns more than 640 million acres, controlling a vast majority of the American West. More federal ownership is irresponsible, and in some places, it will soon be impossible,” the letter noted.
The legislation would permanently remove congressional oversight over how the federal government acquires land using the LWCF. At the same time, the bill gives $9.5 billion to several federal agencies that have “demonstrated their inability to prevent billion-dollar deferred maintenance backlogs. This legislation gives future administrations license to buy as much land as they can find each year without any consideration to impacts on communities or natural resource management,” NCBA said.
“It is irresponsible and disappointing to see so many members of Congress willing to abdicate their responsibilities as elected officials by relinquishing their input into how the federal government acquires and cares for land. If the Great American Outdoors Act becomes law, Congress will be complicit in the tens of billions of dollars in future deferred maintenance caused by these acquisitions. Issues addressed by this bill are real, but the American people know that throwing money at a problem is not the way to make it go away,” NCBA added.
Steve Dittmer, executive vice president of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, said in a recent newsletter that GAOA is set to hammer agriculture and rural communities.
“Gobbling up more private land for the federal government not only takes land out of the hands of farmers and ranchers who could put it to productive use; it also takes it off the tax rolls for rural counties who use that money for school districts, i.e., 'for the children,’” Dittmer wrote.
Consideration of this bill also comes at a time when Congress has recently provided trillions of dollars in much-needed aid to individuals, businesses and communities nationwide as a result of COVID-19, the letter stated. “To add billions of dollars to mandatory spending for LWCF is both irresponsible for future Americans who will be forced to confront American debt and irresponsible for the resource,” the livestock groups noted.
Yet, that’s exactly what the Senate did. The bill now moves to the House, where it is also expected to pass.