BOISE — With the backing of President Donald Trump, Congress is getting close to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a decision that would affect Idaho public lands.
The U.S. Senate will vote next week on the Great American Outdoors Act, which would redirect more offshore oil and gas lease profits to the conservation fund and allow up to $9.5 billion in other non-taxpayer funds to address repairs in national parks and on other public lands.
Idaho's 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson (R) is co-sponsoring the act in the House with a bipartisan group of representatives from all over the United States. Idaho has more than a half billion dollars' worth of deferred maintenance in its national parks and forests, according to data collected by the Forest Service.
To be "fully funded," the LWCF has to hit a $900 million mark annually, which the Great American Outdoors Act would allow. Since 2001, the fund has hit that mark once. Recently, its annual funding has hovered around the $500 million mark, about half of that $900 million benchmark.
"This is an important bill in all western states, all public land states," Simpson said in a Friday morning phone interview.
The fund was established in 1964 to use earnings from the federal government's offshore oil and gas leases to buy land, pay for maintenance at national parks and provide money to states to help meet demands for outdoor recreation. However, full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been elusive, which is why, if passed, the Great American Outdoors Act would have major impacts on the quality of public infrastructure on public lands.
Simpson said the support from Trump for the legislation was a key aspect of the bill moving forward.
"If he had not come out and supported it, I'm unsure if it would have come out in the Senate or the House," Simpson said.
Simpson has been working on public lands legislation for the past three years and said even if the act passes, the work won't be done.
"I don't think it's ever finished," he said. "It's a continual process."
Support for the outdoors act is coming from throughout Idaho, too. Organizations such as the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Sawtooth Society and Conservation Voters for Idaho have all signed a letter in support of the legislation. And Idaho State House of Representatives and Sens. Marc Gibbs and Lee Heider sent another letter in support of the act and conservation fund.
Jonathan Oppenheimer, the external relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, said he was "encouraged" by Simpson's introduction of the bill.
"Beyond the conservation angle on this, there are all of those roads that need to be upgraded and repaired. National forests are also important in terms of access and management as well," Oppenheimer said.
Idaho ranks third in the nation in Forest Service deferred maintenance project cost, with the Idaho Panhandle and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests having $143 million and $140 million, respectively, in deferred maintenance costs.
Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said the Great American Outdoors Act would do even more for the country than just fund outdoor recreation projects and public land management. With the amount of required maintenance, Brooks believes the new funding will act as an "economic recovery stimulus bill."
"It's an unfortunate situation with COVID and the lockdown, but this is going to put people back to work," Brooks said.
Simpson agrees with Brooks' analysis of the bill as well.
"The park service recently estimated that it would create 100,000 jobs in the park service in direct and associated appointments," Simpson said.
The legislation will come before the Senate for a vote sometime next week, and will potentially be in front of the House of Representatives for passage at the end of June.