On Tuesday, President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill to guarantee for the first time maximum annual funding for acquiring and preserving federal public lands, into law. The measure enjoyed broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and was backed by not only conservation groups but also the pro-business Chamber of Commerce. But it has a pretty serious contradiction built in: It’s funded in part by oil and gas extraction.
The legislation allocates up to $9.5 billion over five years to start taking on the enormous backlog of maintenance requests for national parks. Even more significantly, it sets aside $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal program to acquire and preserve land and waters—including national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas—for public use.
“These include iconic places... many of which are just beautiful pieces of land that do have substantial conservation benefit,” said Susan Jane M. Brown, staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “There’s a lot of public support for bringing those under the umbrella of federal ownership and management for protection.”
Securing funding for parks and public lands is a good idea for many reasons. Amid an extinction crisis, parks and other public lands play a key role in protecting biodiversity. Since these areas are tourism attractions, they can also be a huge boost to state and municipal economies. In addition, they’re an important source of jobs: Parks employ hundreds of thousands of people, and one analysis from the National Park Service predicts that this new measure will create an additional 100,000 jobs over the next five years. Plus, people across the nation use them for recreation and leisure, which provides immeasurable physical and mental health benefits.
The problem is, to fund the bill, Congress will rely on dirty energy companies. The funds poured into the LWCF will be sourced from revenue paid by companies that produce energy on federal lands and waters, including from oil, gas, and coal.
“It is really perverse in many ways,” said Brown.
Fossil fuel extraction is a serious contributor to the biodiversity crisis this bill aims to tackle. And extraction on public lands specifically is a significant source of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to threatening the future of all life on Earth, the warming caused by those emissions could threaten infrastructure and make it far more difficult to maintain parks.
For years, environmentalists have attempted to push legislation to block fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. In recent years, the proposal has been picked up by policymakers, including presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden. But if that measure is successful, and drilling on public lands is halted, a significant portion of the funding for the LWCF would disappear. The bill includes no plans for that scenario.
“It is an odd and uncomfortable arrangement, to be sure,” said Brown. “If we do end up with a political shift, and oil and gas development on federal lands is banned, then those receipts would drop, they’d decrease, and there would not be as much funding going into Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase and then conserve those lands.”
Christopher Ketcham, the author of This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, criticized environmentalists for backing the measure.
“It’s just wrong. If you say well, we’re against this extraction, but since the activity is ongoing, we’re going to take some of the money from that activity... what it shows to the public is that... this movement just stands for expedience and pragmatism, which doesn’t inspire anybody,” he said.
Ketcham also expressed concern that conservatives and centrists could use the legislation as a means to provide cover for the fossil fuel industry, claiming they are essential to the future of conservation.
Though Brown supports calls to phase out fossil fuel operations on public lands, she noted that such a measure is unlikely to go into effect in the immediate term. “I don’t know how realistic it is to assume that a spigot will be turned off tomorrow,” she said. “As long as we do continue to extract public resources for some commercial gain, then the public needs to benefit from that extraction.”
Either way, if environmentalists are successful in pushing U.S. officials to phase out fossil fuels, they will have to grapple with this contradiction.
“That would be a good problem to have,” said Brown.
Ian Brickey, deputy press secretary of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All program, said the Great American Outdoors Act is a significant achievement for the conservation movement but that it alone is not sufficient to protect public lands and preserve wildlife and recreation
“A fully funded LWCF will be an important tool to protect our public lands and increase equitable access to our vital outdoor spaces, but the Great American Outdoors Act cannot be the last word on the issue. Congress can and must do more to protect public lands and ensure just and sustainable energy solutions,” he said in an email.
Ketcham said the environmental movement should demand Congress allocate funding to conservation that’s not wrapped up in fossil fuel interests.
“We should have a grassroots movement that demands the Congress allocate this money directly from the federal budget,” he said.