SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, plans to rally his colleagues in the House on Wednesday to urge them to vote down the Great American Outdoors Act, which he says is a flawed bill that promotes reckless spending and unchecked acquisition of land by the federal government.
The legislation, which already passed the Senate, will head to President Donald Trump’s desk if it receives approval in the House.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, posted on his Facebook page that Trump should veto the bill.
“At a time when the federal government is running deficits of almost $1 trillion a month, it is absurd that Congress would pass a bill that would make spending for more land acquisition mandatory. Why should federal land acquisition be made mandatory before benefits for veterans? Or funding for soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines?” Lee wrote.
“The federal government already owns too much land. The last thing we should be doing is enabling the federal government to acquire more land without any scrutiny from Congress.”
Lee is circulating a petition to defeat the bill’s passage.
The Great American Outdoors Act proposes to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at an annual level of $900 million.
The fund has been around since the 1960s and is used to acquire open space for urban parks and in wildland landscapes. It is funded by any excess royalties generated from offshore oil and gas development as well as other energy development.
Bishop said the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust that revenue into serious jeopardy.
“Last month there was an 84% drop in the amount of energy we developed, which means there will be a corresponding drop in royalties,” he said.
While the act does propose to divert those excess royalties to address the nearly $20 billion in deferred maintenance backlog at national parks and other federal land facilities, Bishop said that spending is secondary to land acquisition.
“What it really is is a way to get around how much money you can spend on buying public lands,” he said.
The bill has the backing of hundreds of conservation and environmental groups.
In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Deseret News, Ashley Korenblat wrote that the majority of Utah’s delegation is taking the wrong position by opposing the bill.
“Voting against this bill is a direct hit to Utah’s rural communities where oil, gas and coal are no longer growing industries. Plus, it undermines valuable projects like the Bonneville Shoreline Trail along the Wasatch Front, historic preservation efforts like the Jarvie Ranch in Browns Park and the work to acquire inholdings in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in Washington County,” wrote Korenblat, who is chief executive officer of Western Spirit Cycling and managing director at Public Land Solutions, a nonprofit supporting economic development in Western communities.
But Bishop said the bill was amended in the Senate to eliminate a provision that ultimately harms East Coast states.
The act previously included a limitation on how much land the Forest Service could acquire west of the 100th meridian — no more than 15%. The other 85% was supposed to occur east of that line.
Bishop said the reasoning behind the requirement is that states in the West already already had a large concentration of land in federal ownership and that greater parity for Eastern states was overdue.
He emphasized that if the amendment stays in, each state east of the 100th meridian would lose its rightful share of $1.19 billion over the next 10 years — amounting to $32 million for impacted states.
Bishop distributed a letter and included background on the provision to the offices of 154 members of Congress.
“As a member from Utah, a state with close to 70% federal land ownership, I support the 100th meridian requirement. Eastern states deserve equality in federal landownership as Congress intended,” he wrote.
“For a member who supports fully and permanently funding (the Land and Water Conservation Fund) and represents a district east of the 100th meridian, (the bill) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”