To most Americans, the so-called Great American Outdoors Act is a mistake – expensive, short-sighted, and wrong. To those of us who live in the American west, it’s a disaster.
Despite its rosy claims, this legislation combines two bills that will only tighten the federal stranglehold on our lands and drive us deeper into debt…. to the detriment of our economy, our environment, and the livelihoods and freedom of the American people.
Just how does it do so?
The first title, containing an expanded version of the Restore Our Parks Act, attempts to address the roughly $19.3 billion-dollar maintenance backlog on our federal lands, concentrated primarily on national parks projects, which approach a $12 billion backlog all on their own.
But it seeks to do so by spending $9.5 billion of federal offshore energy revenues over 5 years… without any means of off-setting those extra funds.
That is money that is currently going in to the United States Treasury to pay for a number of expenditures – from aircraft carriers to federal courts — and will only add to our already ballooning national debt.
It is Congress’s job to set priorities for the funds in the Treasury. If we prioritize something, we must either proportionately decrease the funding for something else, or find a way to generate new revenue. This bill does neither.
And furthermore, without any measures to prevent it, it guarantees that a similar backlog will only re-emerge in the future.
There are better ways to address this problem – for example, the solutions proposed in the Senator Enzi’s bill on this topic, the REAL Act.
The REAL Act would modestly increase park visitor fees by $5, businesses and tourist visa fees by $25, and visa waiver program fees by $16 – estimated to bring an additional $5.5 billion in revenue over the next ten years.
This is a reasonable, practical solution to sustainably address the maintenance backlog on our national parks. What is more, it would create a permanent and independent way of supplementing the funding for our national parks without adding to the national debt.
The second title of this bill creates almost one billion dollars of mandatory spending every year on new federal land acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Passed in 1964, the LWCF was enacted to promote and preserve access to recreation opportunities on public lands.
So the fund was set up to be the principal source of money for federal land acquisition, and to assist states in developing recreational opportunities. Originally, it directed 60% of its funds to be appropriated for state purposes, and 40% for federal purposes.
But unfortunately, the program has since drifted far from its original intent and been rife with abuse.
In 1976, the law was amended to remove the 60% state provision, stating simply that “not less than 40%” must be used for federal purposes, while remaining silent on whether a state would receive a penny.
Now, not less than 40% of funds are dedicated to state purposes. But that still means that up to 60% of the funds can be used for federal land acquisition.
The result? It has been used more for federal land acquisition than for improving access or care to the land we already manage.
61% of funds have historically been used for acquisition, compared to the 25% that have been allocated to state grants…. Spending close to $12 billion dollars to purchase new federal lands.
So despite people’s images of charming ribbon cuttings at local parks and scenic wildlife, the LWCF has functioned as the federal government’s primary vehicle for land grabs… resulting in a massive, restrictive, and neglected federal estate.
The federal government now owns more than 640 million acres of land – a total larger than the entireties of France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy, the U.K., Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands combined. That is 28% of the country’s total acreage, and more than 50% of the land in the West.
And it has proven to be far more land than the government is capable of managing.
The condition of the vast federal estate ranges from fair to poor to dismal. These lands face problems with rampant wildfires, soil erosion, mismanagement, and littering… with a staggering combined maintenance backlog of nearly $20 billion dollars.
Resources are only being spread thinner as they are being stretched to serve more and more lands.
On top of that, many of the LWCF funds have been to diverted to a vague “other purposes” category that has, in many instances, little to do with access to outdoor recreation at all.
In fact, many of the programs it has funded have instead aimed to pull land from public use – regardless of how the land is classified.
Rather than increasing opportunities for hunting and fishing, snowmobiling, hiking, camping, or kayaking, the land policies in place have slowly been squeezing out recreational opportunities for decades.
And so too have these policies imposed severe economic restrictions.
As the federal estate has grown since the time the LWCF was established, natural resource production – including mining, energy, timber, and livestock grazing – have sharply declined, depriving rural communities of crucial jobs.
Timber production, for example, has been cut by about 90% since the 1980s. So instead of providing sustainable, economically productive logging in the Northwest, these forests are now “managed” by catastrophic wildfire under the supervision of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Some claim that the outdoor recreation economy is a major economic boon to these communities. But seasonal tourism is not a sustainable core industry for most communities.
And much of the money spent on outdoor recreation goes to apparel, equipment, and gear from large, out-of-state companies. Rural, public lands counties don’t see a penny of it.
To make matters worse, federal lands also mean the loss of property taxes… and as a result, loss of huge sources of revenue and opportunity for states and local communities.
It is no coincidence that the poorest rural counties in the West are the ones with the most federal lands.
Without property taxes, schools are underfunded. Local governments are crippled. Fire departments are, ironically, depleted, and therefore unable to properly take care of the lands they are charged to protect in the first place.
The Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program was intended to address this disparity by compensating counties and local communities for the loss of property taxes.
But PILT payments have provided only a pittance of what would be due to local governments were federal lands were not exempt from property taxes.
In the 2018, the Utah legislature commissioned a state-of-the-art valuation of 32 million acres of federal land in Utah, excluding roughly 3 million acres of National Parks and Wilderness Areas.
This May, the commission found that appraising these BLM and Forest Service Lands according to their lowest use value would result in an annual property tax bill of $534 million.
In 2019, PILT payments to Utah totaled $41 million… just 7.7% of the potential revenue from property taxes.
And while states and localities are the ones carrying the unfair economic burden, Washington only pours salt in the wound by neglecting its oversight responsibilities.
A May 2019 GAO report found that BLM fails to maintain centralized data on lands acquired, and that an increasing amount of LWCF funds across agencies are being spent on acquisition projects that occur without Congressional approval.
Not only that, but a December 2019 GAO report found that numerous agencies have blatantly disregarded LWCF requirements in order to illegally purchase more land.
Under the original LWCF act, no more than 15 percent of the land added to the National Forest System is to be west of the 100th meridian -- essentially, everything west of Oklahoma.
But the GAO found that between fiscal years 2014 to 2018, the federal government acquired more than 850,000 acres of land in the United States… more than 80 percent of which were west of the meridian.
In another recent review of land acquisition policies across agencies, conducted by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, officials said that 40 percent of lands acquired with LWCF funds were not even requested by the agencies.
So as it turns out, billions of LWCF dollars are being spent without Congress, the relevant agencies, or the public being informed of where or why these acquisitions are being made.
Last year, the Senate permanently re-authorized this broken, harmful, and unaccountable fund – without reform, and without incentive to offer future reforms.
But if that’s not bad enough, the legislation before us proposes to now make that funding mandatory.
Before, Congress could at least appropriate varying amounts to be used from the fund.
Now, this bill turns the LWCF into a true trust fund, automatically requiring that the full $900 million be spent primarily on federal land acquisition each year … in perpetuity, without accountability or oversight.
The unofficial CBO score estimates that this bill has a whole will cost nearly $17.3 billion over the next 10 years… all for land projects that we cannot afford, let alone maintain.
Mr. President, this not how Congress is tasked with exercising the power of the purse.
It is the tough business of Congress to set priorities and to decide which worthy causes should receive our limited resources.
These funds could be going to relief in the midst of the current pandemic, to our national defense, or to a myriad of other goals. Putting these funds into a “direct deposit” mechanism, however, means that we are not having those conversations and actively evaluating how we can best spend those taxpayer dollars each year.
And this provision of the bill automatically puts more funds toward the harmful cause of growing the federal estate… putting us on an even worse path than we are already on.
In fact, the first provision of the bill is only evidence to the fact the we have bitten off more than we can chew.
Mr. President, we must do better.
As it currently stands, we have nothing to gain from this legislation.
The agenda of endlessly growing our federal estate has already put us on a dangerous path, with devastating effects for our lands and the people who live, recreate, and survive off them, as my home state of Utah has experienced all too well.
But if we do not change course, this path will only worsen for the rest of the nation, too.
I urge my colleagues to reconsider, before it is too late.
I yield the floor.
As prepared for delivery.