Congressional Christmas Wish List
Congress is scheduled to leave Washington for the Christmas holidays around December 18th. Before then, both the House and the Senate have a list of “to do” items that could take a monumental effort to complete in time. Among the items is avoiding a government shutdown by passage of an omnibus appropriations measure to fund the federal government through the rest of FY 2016. The deadline for this action is December 11th, unless, of course, they pass another short term extension. All reports are that the Senate/House conferees are making good progress in sorting out the differences over funding levels. Unfortunately, we won’t know how the federal land agencies will fare until the final numbers are released at the end of this process.
The potential explosive issues on the omnibus have to do what are called “riders” which are policy issues attached to appropriation measures. At the end of the day, many of these “riders” are likely to be scrapped in the interest of getting the appropriations measure passed. The December 11th drop dead date helps to facilitate this action.
Finalizing the transportation reauthorization measure has a deadline of December 4th. House/Senate conferees just announced a breakthrough agreement authorizing transportation programs for five years at the tune of $305 billion. This is a major legislative accomplishment. Our favorite program, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), stands to be reauthorized for the full five year period. The authorized amount for the program is $84.16 million per year. We are very pleased with this outcome and want to thank all of you who have responded to our repeated requests to send emails to Congress urging support for the continuation of RTP.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
We reported previously that the authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) expired on September 30th. Since then, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has reported out legislation reauthorizing this program. The committee coupled the LWCF reauthorization with legislation strongly supported by the sportsmen’s community. The latter bill would increase access to public lands for hunting, fishing and target shooting. In other words, it’s one of those “something for everybody” measures. The earliest we expect to see any progress on the Senate floor is sometime after the first of the year.
Also in November, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on a draft proposal by Chairman Bishop that would also reauthorize LWCF. The Bishop proposal makes significant changes to the program and it is far too early to know the final outcome of the committee process though we suspect that the Chairman will make some adjustments to his proposal in an effort to address some of the concerns of his committee members. Even so, the final product coming out of the House Natural Resources Committee is likely to be more far reaching in scope than what was reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In other words, the reauthorization process for LWCF is likely to be lengthy before a final resolution is reached.
National Park Service Centennial
August 25, 2016 will mark the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS) by an Act of Congress. At the time it was formally organized, the nation already had 14 national parks and 21 national monuments all under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior but not coordinated under one management structure. Competing interests among the various parks for funding led to the eventual decision that the establishment of the NPS was the natural evolution to the nation’s commitment to a national park system. Today that system encompasses more than 59 national parks and 80 national monuments and many other historic sites.
With this explosive growth in the number of national parks over the last 100 years, another issue not so pleasant has arisen and that is the huge maintenance backlog for all of these park facilities, totaling almost $11.5 billion. When I first heard that number, I couldn’t believe it so I checked the facts. In a September 30, 2014 report by the NPS, the exact figure stood at $11,493,168,812.
This problem has been building over many decades through several Administrations and Congresses. So, this isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a management one. Seizing the centennial spirit, efforts are now underway in the Congress to create an endowment, funded by both private and federal funds, to begin chipping away at this backlog. Working out the details is the difficult part, but recognition that this maintenance backlog cannot go unaddressed is encouraging news. We can spend a lot of time talking about how important our national park system is, but the real proof is taking care of it. Perhaps this effort is a start.
As soon as the Congress leaves town, I am going to turn my attention to a little Christmas shopping and spending time with the family. My wish for you is that you will be able to do the same.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)