WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 – Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced that the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act on Tuesday evening by a 92-8 vote. This comprehensive public lands bill includes two provisions of particular importance to Vermonters.
The bill permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Congress created the LWCF in 1965 to fund local, state and federal conservation and recreation efforts using the royalties collected from oil and gas companies that drill in offshore waters. The LWCF has helped protect some of America’s most famous and popular places, including the Grand Canyon, the Appalachian Trail and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, as well as creating and maintaining smaller parks, wildlife refuges, trails, and forests across the country. Here in Vermont, the LWCF has provided $140 million for important outdoor recreation, conservation, forestland and open space projects over the past five decades. Some recent LWCF-funded Vermont projects include the Potato Hill Park Playground at Lincoln Community School and the purchase and improvement of community recreation fields at the Mad River Park in Waitsfield.
While the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF is very welcome news, the bill unfortunately does not address appropriations for the LWCF. The LWCF is supposed to receive nearly $900 million a year in royalties from oil and gas companies to support parks and public lands, but Congress routinely diverts half of those funds to other purposes. Furthermore, President Trump has in the past proposed to cut the LWCF by an additional 66 percent, meaning that the huge backlog of critically important work in parks and public lands across the country will only continue to grow.
“To my mind, it is important that we adequately fund the government programs that keep our air, water, and land clean and conserve our natural treasures for future generations to enjoy. As a member of the Senate energy and environment committees, I will continue to fight for full funding of the LWCF,” Sanders said.
The bill passed on Tuesday also includes a provision to connect two iconic hiking trails: North Country Trail and the Appalachian Trail. The North Country Trail crosses seven northern states, from North Dakota to New York, where it currently ends on the border with Vermont at Crown Point. The 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail extends from Georgia to Maine, including 150 miles of trails in the Green Mountain State. The bill would link the two with a new 40-mile segment through Addison County.
“Vermont boasts some of the most extensive and scenic trails in the U.S. With this extension, Vermont would host the intersection of two of these scenic trails, greatly expanding opportunities for hiking and recreation in our beautiful state and benefiting our local economy through outdoor tourism,” Sanders said.
Leahy said, “The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been protecting our nation’s most precious resources for half a century, and I’m proud that this bill will make that vital program permanent. Protecting our wildlife habitats, open spaces, and watersheds is a bedrock Vermont value, and these investments contribute directly to our state’s economy. We worked to make sure that this bill includes the North Country Trail, which will connect Vermont’s outdoor economy with seven other states for current and future generations to use and enjoy.”
This public lands package was introduced in the last Congress, but it died on the Senate floor at the end of the session. Sanders voted in favor of both provisions in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Both Leahy and Sanders joined 48 other cosponsors on a bill that would have permanently reauthorized and permanently funded the LWCF. Both senators also cosponsored the North Country Trails bill.
The Natural Resources Management Act, which now awaits passage by the House of Representatives, also includes other important provisions such as:
• Better equipping federal firefighters to increase safety and effectiveness, especially as wildfires become more frequent and destructive because of climate change;
• The Every Kid Outdoors Act, which will provide free access to our nation’s public lands and waters for fourth graders and their families;
• Reauthorized Neotropical Migratory Birds of Americas Conservation Act, which has helped protect 4.5 million acres of habitat across the hemisphere for the hundreds of migratory species that nest in the US and spend the winter throughout the Americas;
• Created the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act (21CSCA), which would expand the use of conservation and service corps on federal lands and waters; and
• In total, more than 100 local and regional land protection provisions, resulting in over 2 million acres of new protected lands and rivers to boost our nation’s outdoor recreation economy.