The Department of the Interior failed to meet Tuesday’s deadline to submit a list of projects it wants to fund in fiscal year 2021 with money earmarked by the Great American Outdoors Act. Not only does the missed proposal threaten the success of a huge variety of conservation projects, but advocacy groups warn it could be an attempt by the Trump administration to undermine the act’s goals.
The move coincided with the election, even as vulnerable Republican senators who supported the GAOA campaigned on its passage.
“This demonstrates that the Trump administration was only ever interested in using the Great American Outdoors Act to influence the election, and isn’t actually interested in effective governance,” Democratic senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said on a phone call.
DOI’s deadline to submit the list of projects came and went on November 2. Notably, Republican senators Steve Daines of Montana and Cory Gardner of Colorado, who made the GAOA a significant part of their campaigns for reelection, have remained silent about the failure. (Daines and Gardner have not responded to requests for comment.)
Signed into law by President Trump on August 4, the act sets aside a $9.5 billion budget to spend over five years to address the maintenance backlog on public lands. It also permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at a quarter of the budget that was set for it in 1978, when adjusted for inflation—an amount that will continue to decrease with each passing year. The GAOA gave the Department of Agriculture (which manages national forests) and DOI (which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and several other land agencies) 90 days to submit to Congress a list of projects to direct funding toward in fiscal year 2021, which began on October 1 and runs through September of next year.
That should have been easy, because those lists were drafted all the way back in April to support the bill’s legislative progress. But November 2 came and went, and while both departments did submit lists for deferred maintenance projects, DOI’s list for LWCF funds never showed up.
A DOI spokesperson told Outside in an email that submitting the proposal was not actually the department’s responsibility, but rather the President’s. “Per the law...Interior did not fail to meet the deadline,” they wrote, pointing to a line in the GAOA which states, “The President shall submit to Congress detailed account, program, and project allocations of the full amount made available under subsection (A) for fiscal year 2021, not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of the Great American Outdoors Act.”
DOI is a part of the executive branch, and the lawmakers who wrote the GAOA understand this list to be the responsibility of that department. DOI pointing blame toward Trump is a remarkable turn of events after Election Day, especially given that this same department, just days ago, illegally used taxpayer funds to create a campaign video for the same President.
According to E&E News, Congressional aides initiated a call with DOI to ask for an explanation on Monday night, but none was forthcoming then.
“They ducked, bobbed, and weaved and didn't answer the question about where the LWCF lists are,” a participant in the call told E&E.
The draft version of that list included $116 million in funding for projects spread across the BLM, NPS, and United States Fish and Wildlife Service. An additional $23.6 million was directed toward the purchase of six new parcels of public land. By not submitting the final list, DOI is setting some of those projects back, and puts others in outright peril. Organizations hoping to spend LWCF funds—state and local governments and various non-profits—are now left with nothing but uncertainty, meaning they can’t set budgets, hire contractors, or conduct planning. The land acquisition deals, in particular, are now in jeopardy, as the sellers may now go with buyers capable of executing deals, and not the federal government.
Conservation and public land advocates fear that the delay could be because oil lobbyist-turned-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is preparing an implementation memo that could seek to control how LWCF money is spent.
“These delays suggest an effort by Secretary Bernhardt to circumvent the will of the American people and Congress,” said Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, in a statement. “That is unacceptable and will not stand.”
“I don’t know what’s in Bernhardt’s head,” Heinrich said. “But I do know that given this bill’s level of support, the votes are there to properly appropriate these funds.”
If DOI continues to delay, it’s expected that Congress will step in. But, with so many unknowns surrounding the election and more pressing legislative fights looming over issues like pandemic relief and challenges to the Affordable Care Act, the timeline in which the GAOA could again be acted on is unclear. And that just adds further uncertainty for the governments and organizations waiting on the funds.