Energy & Environment

New Interior order undermines conservation bill Trump campaigned on, critics say

Critics say a new order from the Interior Department kneecaps a conservation effort that President Trump routinely campaigned on.

Trump regularly touted the Great American Outdoors Act on the campaign trail, a bipartisan bill he signed in August that solidifies more than $900 million in funding each year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The fund is designed to allow the federal government to acquire land for parks, trails and conservation purposes, but a Friday order from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt gives governors and even county commissioners the ability to veto any purchases of private land by requiring “written expression of support.” 

“It’s a clear interference with private property rights and that the big irony here is that it’s coming from the party claiming to support personal liberty and private property rights. They’re trying to give every county commission and governor in the country veto power over private land owners who want to sell their land to the government at fair market rates,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the law doesn’t allow for state and local officials to have this kind of authority.

“This administration can’t resist the urge to break the law, and this order is a perfect example of why they can’t be trusted to protect our environment,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

“They have no interest in conservation; even with clear direction and guidance from Congress they are doing their best to sabotage the Land and Water Conservation. They’re just trying to smash and grab whatever they can on their way out the door when they should focus on working with the Biden transition team.”

The Great American Outdoors Act and its funding for LCWF was a remarkable turnaround for the Trump administration, who previously proposed nearly eliminating the program in every previous budget. 

But support for conservation efforts gained new momentum in the Trump administration as Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) headed into tough reelection battles.

In another surprising portion of the secretarial order, Bernhardt claims it “will remain in effect until its provisions are completed” and that “termination of this order will not nullify the implementation of the requirements and responsibilities effected herein.”

“They’re basically saying no take backs,” Weiss said. “Like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make this law even after I leave.’ It doesn’t work that way but it’s laughable Bernhardt is even tying it.”

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reverse many Trump administration environmental policies.

The order also requires the department to prioritize land acquisitions for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, something that would sideline the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Weiss said that’s consistent with an administration that has consistently prioritized oil and gas development on BLM lands.

Critics say other recent actions show conservation is not a Trump priority.

On Election Day, Interior missed an important deadline for submitting its list of proposed LWCF projects to Congress, doing so a week late.

“At best, the administration is incompetent at following its own laws,” the Sierra Club said in a statement referencing the missed deadline.

“At worst, they had no intention of upholding the law in the first place. We are hopeful President-elect Biden will live up to the spirit of the law to build a safer and more equitable outdoors for all.”

The delay even earned criticism from some Republicans.

“If this truly were urgent, if this were a priority, then you would’ve had this list years ago. If you had this … huge priority of acquisitions, you could’ve produced this list at the drop of a hat,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who voted against the bill, told The Hill Monday.

Updated at 3:58 p.m.

Tags Cory Gardner Donald Trump Garret Graves Great American Outdoors Act Joe Biden Land and Water Conservation Fund Steve Daines

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