Louisiana’s congressional delegation can’t stop the Great American Outdoors Act

Popular bipartisan bill sent to President Trump for signature

The Louisiana Highway 1 Bridge, also known as the Gateway to the Gulf Expressway, rises above the marshland and coastal waters on August 25, 2019, in Leeville. Louisiana has been losing its coastal landscape at the rate of almost a football fields worth of land every hour, and the state's congressional delegation says offshore drilling revenue should be used to restore the coast, not to fund maintenance in the country's national parks. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Major environmental legislation sailed through Congress Wednesday while the nation’s political leaders were stuck in intense negotiations over the contours of a fifth coronavirus relief package.

The bill would provide $9.5 billion over five years to pay down the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog and provide permanent funding at $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports natural areas and recreation activities.

It was sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights giant who passed away last week.

The U.S. House approved the bill by a vote of 310 to 107. The bill had broad bipartisan support, with 228 Democrats and 81 Republicans voting for it. Voting against were 104 Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-New Orleans) was one of two Democrats in the House who opposed the bill.  In a June 23 interview with the Illuminator, Richmond said he opposed it primarily because the bill is funded with offshore drilling revenue.

I’m against it,” Richmond said. “You’re taking money that could and should go to the Gulf Coast states, and you’re spending it. It’s tone deaf for a lot of reasons. The states that you’re taking it from have real needs.” Then, citing the prevalence of police brutality and the spectacle of people across the country loudly protesting that brutality, Richmond said, “This is where we invest our money? This is where we spend our funds? Parks are a noble cause, but I don’t think that’s the first couple billion dollars you spend when you have unrest in the streets.”

Richmond was joined in his opposition to the bill by Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation, including House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, Rep. Clay Higgins, Rep. Mike Johnson and Rep. Garrett Graves.  Rep. Ralph Abraham did not vote.

In an earlier statement, Graves had called the legislation an “activist, thinly veiled money laundering scheme” that would “accelerate the destruction of four million acres of America’s Mississippi River Delta coastal wetlands.”

The U.S. Senate adopted the measure in June by a 73-25 vote. Louisiana senators Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy voted no.

Referring to the part of the bill that addresses deferred maintenance, Cassidy, the Senate’s most outspoken critic of the measure, said that America has more pressing needs “than potholes and broken toilets in national parks.” He also said it’s unfair to take money away from where people live — such as along the Gulf Coast — and send it to where people vacation.

In a statement after the Senate vote, Emily Vuxton, policy director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana said, “We were disappointed that the Great American Outdoors Act was not amended to address the concerns of the Louisiana delegation. Our delegation simply wanted to make it fair — that more funds stay in Louisiana to be used for coastal protection and restoration. We need all the funds we can get to fully implement our $50 billion coastal master plan.”

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk.

“I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted in March. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

The legislation drew plaudits from environmental advocates in and outside of Congress.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called it a “huge step forward to ensuring that every community has access to nature” and a “testament to the power of grassroots activists and the enduring popularity of conservation.”

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, called the legislation a “major win for the American people” on the House floor Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, seemed near tears as she spoke about the bill.

“This is an emotional moment for me,” she said on the floor. “The permanent full funding in this legislation is the culmination of decades of work by the conservation community and my late husband [John Dingell Jr.] and our wonderful current dean, Don Young, who first advocated for this permanent funding through the Conservation and reinvestment act in 1999.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, objected to the bill, in part because it would add $17 billion to the national debt amid a pandemic.

The bill was seen as a way to boost the reelection chances of lead sponsor Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana — two of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for reelection, as rated by the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections.

Overall, eight of the nine most vulnerable GOP incumbents backed the bill. Texas’s John Cornyn was the exception.

Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonpartisan group based in Montana that advocates for conservation policies, strongly supported the bill.

Arizona sites need more than $500 million for deferred maintenance projects, according to a 2018 National Parks Service report that pegged the national backlog at $11.9 billion.

Louisiana sites need almost $11.5 million for maintenance, according to that report. That includes slightly more than $6 million at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, approximately $4.5 million at Cane River Creole National Historical Park, about $1 million at New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and about $11,000 at Vicksburg National Military Park. (Most, but not all of that park is in Mississippi.)

An analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated direct spending and related economic impacts of the bill would add 100,000 “job-years” to the national economy.

Polls show funding the National Park Service and the Land and Water Conservation Fund are overwhelmingly and increasingly popular. In a Pew Charitable Trusts poll last year, 82% of respondents said they wanted Congress to pay up to $1.3 billion to address the National Parks backlog, up from 76% in 2018.

Though popular, the issue may have little effect at the ballot box, said Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Voters are focused on other issues and, in a presidential election year, are likely to base their votes for Senate on their party preference at the top of the ticket, she said.

“Even in normal times, most Americans do not pay much attention to what happens inside of Congress,” Norrander wrote in an email. “[W]ith the current situation, most voters would be more concerned about COVID-19 and the economy.”

Some environmental groups are still wary of the conservation records of some of the GOP senators who voted for the bill.

“They voted right on this one, but it won’t erase their terrible environmental records,” said Hannah Blatt, the communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s political advocacy arm, EDF Action. “They have done nothing to stop the administration’s relentless attacks on our air and water.

Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.