Bernhardt’s Rhetoric Versus Reality on Funding for The Land And Water Conservation Fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the single most important and largest public access and parks program in America. Over the past five decades, it has been crafted and reauthorized time and again, each year by a new Congress that might disagree on everything else, but continue to come together in support of public lands. The LWCF carries bipartisan support and just two months ago, the fund was passed into permanent law – an exciting and groundbreaking development after decades of a tedious reauthorization process. However, while the law of the land stands, the much-heralded legislation did not include funding.

With such rare bipartisan support for a program that doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime, you would expect the Trump administration and the Interior Department to excitedly help Congress ensure the LWCF receives the funding it needs. But because Interior’s conflicted leadership is more focused on appeasing outside special interests than doing its job in protecting public lands, this landmark moment for the LWCF cannot yet be celebrated.

Without the Department of the Interior working with Congress to pass a measure that would ensure funding for the LWCF, many fear a continuation of what has already begun to happen: a staggering $22 billion in funding has been diverted for something else. Without a direct allocated budget from Congress, consistent with advice from the Interior, the LWCF cannot accomplish its intended purpose: expanding access, maintaining parks, and protecting wildlife habitats.

The ex-lobbyist turned-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is now responsible for our parks, public lands, protecting endangered species, and preserving it all for the next generation. In his confirmation hearing, members of Congress pressed Bernhardt on his commitment to the LWCF, ensuring he would not only uphold the critical law but also make sure the Land and Water Conservation Fund was, in fact, funded.

When Senator Joe Manchin inquired about Bernhardt’s commitment to the LWCF, Bernhardt said he was a supporter and would help Congress move the program forward. When Senator Ron Wyden wondered how Bernhardt would support the Fund, Bernhardt promised to “faithfully execute the goals.” Bernhardt even promised two other Senators that he would execute whatever funding level Congress pursued without explanation.

However, Bernhardt was unable to offer any specific solutions or funding options. He neglected to offer any guidance or semblance of an action-oriented plan. He was quick in his promises but hard to pin down on any sort of substance. Bernhardt, in typical former lobbyist fashion, essentially skirted every question about funding for the LWCF, offering instead the promise that he’d come up with “creative ways to implement” the public access and parks program. In both his verbal and written testimony during his confirmation process, Bernhardt would not commit to a permanent appropriation from Congress. He would not commit to a longstanding funding solution for the LWCF. He dodged any questions related to fiscally supporting the public access legislation.

Bernhardt might have tried to offer reassurances but his record versus reality tells a different story.

Bernhardt’s boss, President Trump, continues to back damaging actions, thoughtless policies, and the ultimate destruction of public lands across the West. Trump’s proposed budget for 2020 slashed the LWCF budget by 95 percent. Such staggering cuts are not a new practice: Trump’s 2018 budget proposal tried to cut the LWCF by 84 percent and his 2019 budget pursued an astonishing 98 percent in budget cuts.

Budgets aren’t the only piece of the Trump administration’s plan to gut public lands protections. The administration is now suggesting a plan to open one million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in California for oil fracking among the other millions of acres of public land now open to industrial development.

Clearly, Trump and Bernhardt can’t be trusted with our Western heritage and way of life. The two are reliably unreliable when it comes to protecting our public lands.

We know Bernhardt can’t take on the task of funding the LWCF alone. Senators across the aisle voted to reauthorize a historic lands package, and many are using their vote to rouse support from their constituents. Montana Senator Steve Daines, for example, took much credit in the “historic conservation win”, sending out a press release, a tweet, and joining Trump at the bill signing for the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF. However, Daines has not once called on the administration to fund the program and seems to be doing very little to promote legislation that would financially protect the LWCF. The Lost Trail and Lolo National Forest are at risk in Daines’ home state of Montana among other parks, waters, and forests.

Without funding, all the power and promise of the LWCF is empty and vulnerable.  

With $22 billion already diverted away from the Land and Water Conservation Fund – money that could have gone to local trail building, expanding access for sportsmen and women, protecting wildlife habitat, and improving parks – Bernhardt’s and Trump’s lack of commitment to public lands is clear: the money our parks, rivers, and mountains deserve will be lost in a bureaucratic mess, made of broken promises and partisan fighting.

Bernhardt is already embroiled in seemingly endless conflicts of interest- so many that he carries a note card with him, to ensure he doesn’t forget which conflicts he’s still stuck in. Six of his senior officials in the department are facing their own potential ethical violations. His acting Solicitor within the Interior is a Koch Brothers alumni, and an ally of the oil industry, who faced a contentious confirmation hearing earlier today. Secretary Bernhardt has only recently agreed to meet in public with members of Congress. And if that weren’t enough, Bernhardt’s team intentionally left off potentially controversial meetings from his public schedule.

Ultimately, Bernhardt can dodge questions and provide empty answers all he wants but his actions speak louder than any talking point ever could. His vocal support for the Trump administration’s FY2020 Budget, his decision-making favorable to former lobbying clients and his history as an oil and gas lobbyist make it hard to trust his commitment to seek funding for the LWCF. He continues to ignore the realities at hand: that our public lands are in danger, and need this funding to survive.

The Department of the Interior, with Bernhardt at the helm, must work with Congress to pass the funding necessary to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Our public lands, parks, waterways, and wildlife habitats are imperiled without this crucial program.

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