Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana could not have picked a better moment — or a more unlikely one — for a historic bipartisan legislative victory on an issue crucial to their states.
The Senate Republicans stood Tuesday near President Trump in the East Room of the White House as he signed the Great American Outdoors Act, sending nearly $10 billion over five years to address the historically underfunded backlog of deferred maintenance work on the national parks and public lands.
“Today we’re making the most significant investment in our parks since the administration of the legendary conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt,” Mr. Trump said. “This landmark legislation would not have been possible without the incredible leadership and hard work of two outstanding senators in particular, and two fine people, Cory Gardner and Steve Daines.”
Five months ago, the two senators met with Mr. Trump in the Roosevelt Room to seek his support for the bill. They detailed the poor conditions of roads, bridges, trails and park facilities where repairs have been delayed for years, even decades, as other projects took priority.
“This was going to be the greatest achievement in 50 years for conservation, in its broadest context,” Mr. Daines said at the ceremony. “And you said to me, Mr. President — you said, ‘You get this bill on my desk, and I’ll sign it.’ Well, five months later, we’re here.”
The act creates the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to cover maintenance costs, using up to $1.9 billion per year from energy development on public lands, and provides $900 million annually from offshore oil and natural gas royalties for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which buys and preserves land for public use.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived entrance fees to parks Tuesday to celebrate the new law. He called it “the most consequential dedicated funding for national parks, wildlife refuges, public recreation facilities and American Indian school infrastructure in U.S. history.”
“Today, more than 5,500 miles of road, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings are in critical need of repair. They have been for a long time,” Mr. Trump said. “Many are closed, boarded up. They thought it was less expensive to close them than it was to repair them.”
The national parks and other federally owned land have an estimated $20 billion backlog in maintenance that has piled up for decades.
It’s little wonder that Mr. Trump was easily persuaded. The measure fits his plans to restore, repair and rehabilitate Superfund sites, dilapidated public works and other environmental hazards. The Obama administration’s environmental focus was on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.
“That was a meeting that took place, and within about a minute, I was convinced,” Mr. Trump said. “And I wasn’t at all convinced before I walked in. But when we saw what was going on and what could go on — and I know you’ll spend the money very wisely.”
Still, support for the Great American Outdoors Act was hardly unanimous. Two House Democrats and 104 House Republicans voted against it. Some were opposed to adding more land to the federal government’s vast holdings, and others to the use of energy royalties from Gulf states to fund Western projects.
Then there were objections to the timing, in the middle of the economic downturn caused by the novel coronavirus shutdowns.
“Quick, there’s a global pandemic,” Rep. Garret Graves, Louisiana Republican, said in his July 22 floor remarks. “Let’s spend billions of dollars repairing fences, putting up new signs, fixing toilets at our wildlife refuges, parks and forests, said no one ever. Ever.”
Mr. Trump agreed that the bill faced tough odds. “People thought you had zero chance of getting this one done. This is big. And they gave you zero chance,” he said.
“And I said, ‘Can you guys stop calling me so much?’” Mr. Trump said. “But they would call me all the time. They wanted to get it done. This was very important to them. So I appreciate it, Steve and Cory. Really, a great job.”
Bipartisanship amid acrimony
The signing also has political implications. Both of the senators and the president are facing tough reelection battles in November.
An Emerson College poll released Monday found Mr. Daines leading Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock 50% to 44%, tracking Mr. Trump, who also led by 6 percentage points in Montana over his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Mr. Gardner, the underdog in his reelection bid against former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, began running television ads last month that touted the Great American Outdoors Act and showed him and his three children loading up the SUV for a camping trip.
“Coloradans live in national forests and parks,” Mr. Gardner says in the ad. “For decades, Congress ignored the parks and stole the maintenance money. I made it my job to stop it.”
Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, who has worked on campaigns in Colorado and Montana, predicted that the legislation would have a “big impact” on both Senate races.
“The way Cory worked on this on a bipartisan basis to get it through the Senate, and the way he was able to influence a decision by President Trump to sign the bill, I think it’s just a victory all the way around for Cory,” Mr. Wadhams said. “He’s got a really good record of accomplishment for Colorado, but this one is the capstone, I think, of his first term.”
For Mr. Gardner, who has worked on the issue since he was elected to the Senate in 2014, the act also hits Mr. Hickenlooper on his weak spot with the left — the environment, thanks to his support for hydraulic fracturing and the oil and gas industry.
More than 300 environmental groups backed the measure, but the Sierra Club made it clear that its alliance with Mr. Gardner would be short-lived by endorsing Mr. Hickenlooper on the same day the bill was signed.
“Colorado deserves a senator who will prioritize public lands and conservation from day one, not just when it is politically convenient,” tweeted the Sierra Club.
Even so, nothing could spoil the day for Mr. Gardner, who called it “a remarkable opportunity to celebrate.”
“In the midst of acrimony, in the midst of partisanship, in the midst of times when the American people probably look out and wonder if they can get anything done, Congress came together to pass the most significant bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, in over 50 years,” Mr. Gardner said. “Thanks to you, Mr. President, for being willing to sign it.”