Trump signs law to fund overdue maintenance of public lands

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law a rare bipartisan bill that will use royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling operations to fund long-overdue maintenance of public lands, national parks and Native American schools.

Trump said more than 5,500 miles of road, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings were in critical need of repair.

“Today we’re making the most significant investment in our parks since the administration of the legendary conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt,” Trump said during a signing ceremony at the White House.

The Great American Outdoors Act will permanently direct $900 million a year to a long-standing federal program aimed at acquiring and protecting public lands.

Work on the unusual bipartisan effort was led by Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, who are both up for re-election this year and spoke at the event, and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The law will insulate the Land and Water Conservation Fund from the congressional appropriations process, ensuring steady funding at double the level seen in recent years by tapping royalties paid by offshore oil and gas drilling operations.

The LWCF was created in 1964, but Congress in most years has diverted funding for it to other uses. It received $495 million in funding last year.

Trump said the law would provide $10 billion to address deferred maintenance needs at national parks and forests, without “bludgeoning our workers and crushing our businesses.”

He took aim at China, Russia, India and other countries that he said were continuing to pollute the environment instead of adopting costly protective measures. “We’re working with other countries to try and get them to up their game,” he said.

Vice President Mike Pence said the measure would create more than 110,000 new infrastructure jobs across the country.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown)

Summer outside? Calls to preserve U.S. public lands after lockdown

By Gregory Scruggs

SEATTLE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Before March, avid mountain biker Levi Rose never used to see a full parking lot at Beacon Hill, a popular trail destination in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington.

But with state parks and gyms closed after Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order to stem the novel coronavirus, cooped-up residents began looking for exercise options closer to home.

Rose suddenly found himself sharing the trailhead with many new faces precisely at a time when the public was being asked to maintain physical distance.

“Parking lots were filling up, so I changed my behavior to seek out non-peak hours,” Rose, a geographic information specialist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “At dinnertime, places I liked to bike (through) were less crowded.”

Outdoor recreation features heavily in the first phases of reopening plans for most U.S. states, even as public officials continue to discourage large gatherings and many national parks remain closed.

With summer approaching and diversions like music festivals, cinemas and theme parks still largely off-limits, conservation groups are lobbying Congress for dedicated public lands funding, ahead of the coming surge of crowds to parks around the country.

“Everyone is coping with the crisis by going outside,” said Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental charity.

The Nature Conservancy joined more than 850 organizations, ranging from outdoor clubs to tourism boards, in a letter last month urging Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.

The bill was first introduced in March, just as the new coronavirus pandemic began occupying lawmakers’ attention.

Congress would spend up to $9.5 billion over five years on the National Park System, which comprises about 4% of total land in the United States, and dedicate $900 million annually to the recently reauthorized Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“We know that Americans are getting back to the basics with their families and going out more into their public lands, which provide excellent social-distancing platforms for people’s activities,” Cors said in a phone interview.

“The Great American Outdoors Act supports all of these goals through maintenance and increased access by providing more land for conservation and recreation.”


Rose, the mountain biker in Spokane, volunteers with a mountain bike club to build new trails in a county that is 92.5% private land, according to data tabulated by Montana-based research firm Headwaters Economics.

“When you don’t have that much public space and you restrict it even more, what we end up seeing is more pressure on city and county parks,” he said.

Passing the Great American Outdoors Act could help ease that pressure, say the bill’s supporters.

The National Park Service estimated an $11.9 billion deferred maintenance backlog at the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

Chipping away at that list of potholed roads, crumbling bridges and aging visitor centers would help make less popular parks more attractive at a time when the public has been urged to spread out, say park advocates.

“We’re trying to disperse visitation across the country to more close-to-home places,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, the parks’ official charity.

“And even within parks, we’re trying to disperse visitation so we’re not creating large crowds in small places.”

Just 10 national parks – including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Great Smoky Mountains, straddling North Carolina and Tennessee – account for 15% of annual visitors, according to park service figures.

“The enactment of (the Act) would be historic and would allow the Department of the Interior to better care for the lands it manages,” National Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper said in emailed comments.


The other beneficiary of the bill’s passing would be the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was permanently reauthorized in February 2019.

Using about $900 million a year from offshore oil revenues, the program allows for the purchase of private land for parks and recreation.

Rose’s mountain bike club has requested $500,000 from the fund to secure 160 acres (65 hectares) of private land whose future development would threaten the Beacon Hill trails.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important close-to-home public green spaces like Beacon Hill are, and without LWCF it would be very difficult to purchase these important green spaces,” he said.

Last month Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate would vote on the Great American Outdoors Act in June.

“Our mountain towns were hit hard by COVID-19. The ski season ended early, restaurants closed and hotels emptied,” said act co-sponsor Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardner in a statement.

“Now is the time to pass this bill that will provide billions of dollars in funding for new jobs across Colorado and the country while protecting our public lands.”

Jill Simmons, head of the Washington Trails Association, a nonprofit, said that local outdoor groups support permanent funding for the LWCF, but cautions that the National Park System needs more than five years of funding to solve the long-term maintenance needs of U.S. public lands.

“The Great American Outdoors Act is a good first step. Just like our road system, our trail system is infrastructure that needs ongoing support,” she said.

“When you’re talking about an infrastructure system that can meet demand for generations, (the Act) is a boost and a start, but not the end-all, be-all.”

(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

Opening statements to begin in Oregon refuge takeover case

A U.S. flag covers a sign at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Armed protesters at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon were exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly in a bid to expose the U.S. government’s illegal ownership and mismanagement of public lands in the West, lawyers for the defendants are expected to argue at trial on Tuesday.

Opening arguments are set for the morning at a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon in the case of ranchers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other limited-government activists who led an armed 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.

The seven defendants are charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers, possession of firearms in a federal facility, and theft of government property. A jury was seated last week.

The takeover at Malheur was the latest flare-up in a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres of public land in the West.

The Bundy brothers have been at the forefront of that movement and stood by their father, Cliven Bundy, at his Nevada ranch in a 2014 armed standoff with authorities over enforcement of federal grazing rights.

The Bundys began the Oregon standoff on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, sparked in part by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who set fires that spread to federal property near the refuge.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney declined to comment on the trial.

Inmates (clockwise from top left) Ryan Bundy, Ammon Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Peter Santilli, Shawna Cox, Ryan Payne and Joseph O'Shaughnessy, limited-government activists who led an armed 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, are seen in a combination of police jail booking photos released by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Portland, Oregon

Inmates (clockwise from top left) Ryan Bundy, Ammon Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Peter Santilli, Shawna Cox, Ryan Payne and Joseph O’Shaughnessy, limited-government activists who led an armed 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, are seen in a combination of police jail booking photos released by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Portland, Oregon January 27, 2016. Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office/Handout via Reuters

Lawyers for the Bundys and other defendants said they will argue, among other things, that the peaceful demonstration was an effort to draw attention to federal government overreach, and illegal control and mismanagement of public lands.

“The government has been squatting on this land for years, illegally and contrary to how (the U.S.) Congress intended,” Marcus Mumford, an attorney for Ammon Bundy, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Matthew Schindler, a lawyer for Kenneth Medenbach, charged with theft of a government-owned Ford F-350 truck, said: “Federal control of public lands in the West is destroying the rural way of life, and that is what my client and others were trying to draw attention to.”

More than two dozen people have been charged in connection with the takeover, and a second group of defendants are scheduled to go on trial in February.

The conspiracy charge carries a maximum of six years in prison, a year more than the firearms charge, while the property theft charge carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood in Portland, Oregon; Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle)