Is Interior Department Blocking Public Lands Funding Out of Retribution?

After cheering the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which secured permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), New Mexico wildlife and conservation advocates were shocked to learn every single project proposed to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) for LWCF funds was rejected.

The LWCF, created by Congress in 1965 to support public land management using offshore oil and gas royalties, received $900 million annually under the Great American Outdoors Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in August. It marked just the second time since its creation that the program is fully funded.

Deubel and others believe the DOI’s denial of the projects was a form of political retribution against New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegation and their criticism of the Trump administration.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which environmental groups considered a historic public lands conservation package, passed the Senate with what some dubbed “rare” bipartisan support on a 73-25 vote. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Republican U.S. Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana—both of whom relied heavily on the Act’s passage in their respective reelection campaigns. New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich also supported the bill, as did U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Luján.

Trump touted the legislation at the time as “truly landmark legislation” and “a very big deal.”

“And from an environmental standpoint and from just the beauty of our country standpoint, there hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect,” Trump said at the signing ceremony for the Act.

But post-election, the Trump administration’s support for the LWCF seems to have dried up. The administration was about a week late in sending Congress a priority list of projects from across the country. The Act gave the DOI and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 90 days to submit a list of projects to receive funding from the LWCF in fiscal year 2021. The USDA list includes projects that would add land to the National Forest Service, which sits under the USDA. The DOI list covers LWCF projects that would add land to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state parks. A draft list of proposed projects was developed in April in support of the legislation.

The Trump administration finally submitted its list to Congress on Nov. 9, the same day Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed a Secretarial Order that many conservation advocates say is essentially a reversal of the key conservation provisions signed into law through the Great American Outdoors Act.

New Mexico projects stripped from DOI list

The final project list for the DOI includes 20 projects across 24 states, but doesn’t include any of the projects proposed for New Mexico. Conversely, the USDA’s final project list includes all six of the proposed projects for New Mexico.

DOI did not return a request for comment.

Jesse Deubel, executive director of the conservation nonprofit New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said he was surprised by the discrepancy. His organization was involved in some of the fieldwork used to identify and study potential projects in the state for the LWCF.

“There’s no New Mexico LWCF projects approved through the Department of the Interior. On the other hand, though, every single LWCF project that was proposed and put on the priority list that went to the United States Department of Agriculture was approved,” Deubel said. “It’s really an interesting dynamic, where you see that 100 percent approval rating with one federal agency, and 100 percent denial rating with the other federal agency.”

Deubel said the USDA approval of the projects is important because “that speaks to the quality of projects we were submitting.”

“The state of New Mexico, our NGO community, our fantastic federal delegation, the agency folks who work within the state—we did a fantastic job of vetting the project, identifying the appropriate projects, the projects that make the most sense for the people in New Mexico, and submitting those projects to the appropriate federal agency,” Deubel said.

Payback for criticisms of Trump’s DOI

Deubel and others believe the DOI’s denial of the projects was a form of political retribution against New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegation and their criticism of the Trump administration.

A mule deer surveys New Mexico terrain. Photo: Shanthanu Bhardwaj/Flickr

Heinrich, who was instrumental in getting the Great American Outdoors Act passed in the Senate, agrees. He told New Mexico Political Report that there’s a “very logical explanation” for the New Mexico projects being stripped from the DOI priority list.

“Myself and others were very critical of the [Interior] secretary and the way he has implemented this law in a way that is fundamentally incongruous with how it was designed by Congress,” Heinrich said. “And so, we were punished for that as a state.”

“When that happens, it’s not me who is hurt, it’s the 10 year old New Mexican girl who doesn’t have a new place to go fishing with her grandfather,” Heinrich added. “That’s the kind of retribution that we’ve seen from this administration.”

Deubel said he believes the removal of New Mexico projects could also be related to the congressional delegation’s broad criticism of Bernhardt’s appointment of William Perry Pendley to lead BLM.

Pendley was appointed by Trump to serve as the BLM’s Deputy Director for Policy and Programs in 2019. But with the agency’s Director position unfilled, Pendley has led the agency as an acting director ever since, without Senate confirmation. A federal judge earlier this year ruled that Pendley had served unlawfully for a year as acting director of BLM. Pendley was officially removed from his post in September, but not before the Trump administration formally nominated him to the position.

The DOI’s denial of the state’s LWCF projects was “a direct result of our federal delegations’ severe accountability campaign against, specifically, Secretary Bernhardt’s decision to illegally appoint William Perry Pendley to be the acting director of BLM,” Deubel said. “I think that Secretary Bernhardt was vengeful about our response to his appointee.”

“I fully believe that that is the primary driving reason that 100 percent of our requests to DOI were denied,” Deubel said.

Secretarial Order ‘undermines’ LWCF

Bernhardt’s Nov. 9 Secretarial Order, meanwhile, imposes new requirements on LWCF projects under the DOI. The order requires that county and state governments sign off on land acquisitions for LWCF projects and prioritizes projects for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Forest Service over BLM. Many of the provisions in the Secretarial Order are similar to a proposed amendment to the Great American Outdoors Act that ultimately failed.

Udall told NM Political Report he was disappointed to see the Trump administration attempt to “undermine the nation’s most successful conservation program.”

“This effort to make these unilateral changes to LWCF would reduce New Mexico’s ability to preserve special places during a time of climate change and a looming extinction crisis, not to mention undercut the growing outdoor economy and the millions of jobs that depend on it,” Udall said in a statement. “This looks like a last gasp attempt to put up a variety of roadblocks that Congress has already rejected on a bipartisan basis, and it was clearly conducted behind closed doors and without giving the public any opportunity to comment.”

Haaland agreed, and said the Secretarial Order is in conflict with the Great American Outdoors Act.

“All Americans deserve the resources for their public parks and outdoor spaces but once again the Trump administration is taking that away,” she told NM Political Report. “Their most recent order reinforces the fact that they only passed the Great American Outdoors Act to win votes in a close election year, and never had an intention of putting the bill to work. The Trump administration’s games giving local governments veto power over the federal LWCF program are at odds with what Congress intended when it the Great American Outdoors Act, and they are an attack on the rights of private property owners to sell their land and water for conservation.”

It’s unclear what impact the Secretarial Order will have on the LWCF moving forward, with a new administration set to take over in January. Many conservation advocates expect President-Elect Joe Biden and his administration to reverse the order shortly after taking office.

Heinrich said he’s “very much looking forward to seeing a Biden Administration step in and take the Great American Outdoors Act and implement it as it was written” and added that “there’s no reason to allow the Trump administration to tie their hands.”

“That’s a giant opportunity to not only do good things for our Western landscapes, but to really restore our recreational economies by investing in infrastructure across the West in Forest Service campgrounds and National Park Service trails—all of those things that can really rebuild our rural and Western economies,” Heinrich said. “They have $14 billion over the next five years to make those investments, so it’s a huge opportunity.”

Deubel is also optimistic that the incoming administration will implement the law the way it was intended. He pointed to rumors that the Biden team is considering several New Mexico Democrats, including Haaland, Udall and Heinrich, for the Interior secretary position.

“We’re about to have a new secretary of the Interior, and most likely that individual will be from New Mexico and is really going to understand these issues, and is going to have strong conservation values,” Deubel said. “I’m optimistic that this secretarial order will be reversed in the very near future.”

This story was originally published by the NM Political Report and is republished here by permission.

Top photo: USFWS



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