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January 20, 2021

E&E Daily: Flouting Congress, Bernhardt guts parks program

President Trump’s public lands legacy has been further complicated by a set of actions handed down by the Interior Department with less than 24 hours left to go in his tenure.
Last night, on the eve of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, outgoing Interior Secretary David Bernhardt greenlit significant changes to the implementation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that would hamstring federal land acquisitions and gut an entire park equity initiative.Critics of these eleventh-hour policy changes aren’t greatly concerned about the long-lasting implications, saying that the Biden administration would certainly undo the new mandates.

Actions targeting the long-standing Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program, which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris championed as a senator from California, are especially likely to be discarded.

“They know it is wrong. They know the program is widely supported, and they know we will fix it,” said Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands with the Nature Conservancy, of the Trump administration. “It is a petty, last-minute attempt to make a mark that only wastes time and resources in cleaning up the mess.”

Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, was already busy last night drafting a letter to circulate for signatures among colleagues urging Biden to reinstate the ORLP specifically, as was Congress’ intent in allocating the funding through the appropriations process.

But one big worry is that these latest actions could cause logistical headaches and take some time to reverse. The Biden administration is being pressed to review and roll back four years’ worth of departmental policymaking, a process that will be lengthy. Revisions to the LWCF may not be at the top of the list.

These delays could be compounded by the fact that Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Biden’s Interior secretary nominee, might not be confirmed for months.

House Democratic leaders have signaled they’ll likely need her on Capitol Hill for at least Biden’s first 100 days to help enact his early legislative agenda with their narrowest majority since World War II.

Ultimately, the overwhelming sentiment expressed last night was anger at the seeming hypocrisy of the outgoing administration.

When Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act back in August — a political gift to endangered Senate GOP incumbents that fully and permanently reauthorized the LWCF for the first time since its creation in 1965 — he invited comparisons to President Theodore Roosevelt, the GOP’s most famous conservationist.

Environmentalists celebrated the bill’s enactment but cautioned not to let Trump take too much credit, pointing to a litany of environmental rollbacks over his four years in office that would supersede one legislative achievement. Last night’s actions, these advocates say, prove this point.

“It is outrageous that the Trump administration and Secretary Bernhardt made this decision in its final hours in office, but shame isn’t something this administration is known for,” said Sierra Club Outdoors for All campaign director Jackie Ostfeld. “This has been the most anti-environment administration in history.”

‘Ignores the intent to Congress’

In a statement yesterday evening, Bernhardt announced new funding for the LWCF State and Local Assistance Program, which enables states to pursue outdoor recreation and conservation projects.

A $150 million increase to this existing pot of money, Bernhardt said, was made possible through “a competitive process,” specifically $125 million that was “made available in FY 2021, plus at least $25 million in available prior year unobligated funds.”

“This year’s increased apportionment is a direct result of the Trump-Pence Administration’s leadership and commitment to fostering cooperative stewardship and recreational opportunities for all Americans, culminating with the enactment of the Great American Outdoors Act in August 2020,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt did not explain what “competitive process” he was referring to here. But advocates told E&E News they had been informed days earlier that the money was coming from the “Competitive Grant Program” line item in the annual appropriations process that always funds the ORLP, an initiative funded through the LWCF that brings parks and green spaces to underserved, urban communities.

The additional $25 million Bernhardt referenced, advocates said, was money unspent in the previous fiscal year earmarked for the very same program. Essentially, the Trump administration opted to cancel the ORLP, which Congress created in 2014.

“Make no mistake,” said Kristine Stratton, president and CEO of the National Recreation and Park Association, “the Trump Administration’s actions are an environmental injustice that will take much needed resources from underserved communities at a time when such funding is needed most.”

Barragán, in the letter she intends to send to Biden in the coming days, notes that “the outgoing Administration’s action ignores the intent of Congress by reprioritizing the intended use of the grant funds away from underserved communities who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Emma Dumain, E&E News reporter | Published: Wednesday, January 20, 2021