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The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area, and the reporting focuses on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Bishop Opposes Automatic Funding For Popular Conservation Program, Slows Passage Of Legislation

a trail on Photo of a hillside overlooking downtown Salt Lake City
Public Domain
The Bonneville Shoreline Trail is a mixed use recreation trail in Utah built with grant money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Around half of the money in the Fund goes to grants for states and cities.

Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has temporarily blocked passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which would guarantee full annual funding for a popular conservation program Bishop has taken issue with in the past.

It’s called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and it uses offshore drilling money to purchase land for public recreation and environmental protection. Utah has received almost $200 million from the program since it was created in 1965. That’s paid for projects like the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and Golden Spike National Historic Site, as well as a number of public pools and parks

The program, which was renewed by Congress last year, is supposed to receive $900 million annually, but Congress often diverts some of that money to other programs through the appropriations process. 

The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed the Senate in June and is now making its way through the House, would automatically fund the program each year, removing it from the appropriations process. 

But Bishop would prefer that Congress control funding for the program, according to his staff. 

“It’s going to spend at least $900 million of taxpayer funds in perpetuity,” said Austin Hacker, who works for Bishop. “Ultimately, right now while we’re facing COVID-19 relief, that is financially irresponsible.”

Bishop has long opposed the creation of new federal public land in the West, because he says the government cannot take care of the land it already owns. Because of this, he has latched onto an obscure provision in the original Land and Water Conservation Fund legislation, which states 85% of the land added to the National Forest system through the program must lie east of the 100th meridian, which bisects the country from Texas through North Dakota. 

The Forest Service has not followed that provision in the past, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. It found that, between 2014 and 2018, 80% of the land acquired by the Service was west of the 100th meridian. Forest Service officials said since Congress appropriates money for the acquisitions, they believed their actions were authorized. 

A map colored green in parts of the country and a red line down the middle of the country
Credit U.S. Government Accountability Office
The map above shows Forest Service lands in green. The Forest Service manages about 193 million acres, and the majority of these lands lie west of the 100th meridian.

But they have since decided to comply with the provision. In a statement provided to KUER, the Service said that means “the amount of western acres that can be acquired is limited, based on the 100th meridian provision”, until Congress specifies otherwise. 

The current iteration of the Great American Outdoors Act does not include the provision. Bishop opposes this, so he blocked the passage of the bill by consent in the House before the July 4 recess. Now, he is urging lawmakers to add the provision back in as an amendment. 

But that’s unlikely to work, according to Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. The conservation group supports the Great American Outdoors Act, as well as full annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

“The Great American Outdoors Act passed with a huge margin in the Senate, and it will be a huge margin in the House when it happens,” Weiss said. “So Rob Bishop at this point is trying to throw sand in the gears and stop the inevitable.”

Weiss also said it’s unlikely that House leaders will support an amendment to the bill, so Bishop’s efforts may not pan out. Congress is currently recessed but is expected to take up the bill when it reconvenes later this month. President Trump has said he will sign the bill into law.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

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