Laura Daniel Davis, Interim Executive Director, America’s Conservation PAC
An up and down first session for conservation in the 114th Congress ended in December, 2015 with some important bipartisan victories: the Land and Water Conservation Fund was extended for three years at significantly increased funding, the critical tax credits supporting renewable energy projects were extended, and the very successful tax incentive that supports private landowners in protecting working and conservation lands through donation of conservation easements was made permanent.
Along the way, however, conservation advocates saw some low points:
In this second session, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Bill continues its progress through the Congress, and we hope that even in this short legislative year it will see passage. And, there may yet be an opportunity to permanently extend the Land and Water Conservation Fund this year.
ACPAC will continue to track these and many other issues important to our parks and public lands and waters and wildlife, and in 2016 will again support Congressional candidates who are committed to protecting and expanding access to our great outdoors, conserving our working lands and wildlife, and preserving our historical and cultural resources.
Will Shafroth, Executive Director, America’s Conservation PAC
Even though the new 114th Congress is only 3 months old, conservation issues have already been heard, debated, and pushed to the forefront of the congressional agenda. Bills have been introduced, hearings have been conducted, and votes have been taken. Here is a rundown of some of what has happened, and some of what conservation advocates can anticipate in the coming months.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the primary federal program that dedicates funds derived from offshore drilling and appropriates it towards outdoor recreation and conservation projects all over the country. LWCF is authorized at $900 million per year, but has only reached that level twice since 1965. Having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Program will expire at the end of 2015 unless Congress passes legislation extending this critical funding source for protecting public lands, enhancing state and local parks and other outdoor recreation projects, conserving private forest lands, and preserving wildlife habitat. Over the years, LWCF has been broadly embraced by both Republicans and Democrats.
At the end of January, the Senate voted on an amendment — introduced by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Michael Bennet (D-CO) — that would permanently reauthorize LWCF. While it fell short of the 60 votes required for passage, the amendment received 59 votes from Democratic and Republican Senators from all over the country. The debate and vote count also indicated a real appetite to reauthorize LWCF in this session of Congress.
Federal Lands Sell Off
During a wide-ranging debate over the fiscal year 2016 budget resolution, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) sponsored an amendment to the budget that would authorize money from federal lands being sold to states to pay down the budget deficit. This amendment was the first foray for the federal government to debate an issue that has been rumbling in Western states over the last few years. The idea is one of great concern to conservationists, sportsmen and citizens all over the West who value public lands for recreation and conservation purposes.
The amendment passed with three Republicans — Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) joining all Democrats in opposing this amendment. A similar amendment had already passed the House. And while this amendment doesn’t mean that federal lands will begin to be sold, it also sends a strong message that a majority in Congress support the idea. AC PAC will continue to watch this issue and encourage candidates to make sure it doesn’t get implemented.
Will Rogers, President of the Trust for Public Land, authored an op-ed in the New York Times recently that speaks well to this matter.
The never-ending saga of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Bill begins anew this Congress. This bill has been introduced during the last two Congresses with significant bipartisan support, only to be brought down by disagreements over unrelated issues. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) recently reintroduced the bill along with a bipartisan group of 17 other Senators. This legislation would reaffirm the rights for hunters and anglers on federal land and enhance hunting and fishing opportunities where they do not conflict with existing federal law. This Bill will provide an opportunity for Senators and House members to show the importance of conserving federal land for recreational opportunities across the United States.
Enhanced Conservation Easement Tax Incentive
In 2006, Congress enacted a law to provide landowners with an enhanced tax incentive for donating a conservation easement on their land. In the ensuing years, the pace of conservation has increased dramatically, demonstrating that federal tax incentives are a strong driver of conservation activity. At the end of 2014, this tax incentive expired. The House has taken the lead in introducing legislation to make this tax incentive permanent with Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Mike Kelly (R-PA) serving as co-sponsors and Senators Dean Heller (R-NV) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) leading the charge in the Senate. No hearings are set yet, but we will be keeping an eye on this effort.
While conservation, outdoor recreation and historic preservation issues don’t always capture the top headlines and features on the nightly news, 2015 is shaping up to be an important year for these causes and their allies. Sportsmen, campers, hikers, climbers, and anyone who depends on our public lands for recreation as well as people who care about close to home places to access the outdoors are looking to their representatives in Washington to work across the aisle and advance the issues described above.
America’s Conservation PAC will spend its energy in 2015 to educate and engage members of both parties on these and other issues. We need strong leadership from Republicans and Democrats to realize progress on conservation and outdoor recreation and we intend to support and endorse candidates that show leadership on these issues.