Scramble Is On To Finish Lands Deal

Negotiators want to reach agreement on the Land and Water Conservation Fund and attach it to a final spending package, but some hurdles remain.

A gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn.
AP Photo/Dawn Villella
Dec. 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

Key lawmakers are laying the groundwork for a last-ditch lands package that would permanently authorize the vaunted—and expired—Land and Water Conservation Fund.

That effort is hung up on some quirky policy areas, like Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves and the fate of Washington's Robert F. Kennedy stadium. But those negotiating the package, which would most likely have to find its way onto a year-end spending bill, are bullish.

Rep. Rob Bishop, the outgoing chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, says a deal is 98 percent buttoned-up among the core bipartisan, bicameral negotiators.

“You could bet your retirement on us having a package this week,” Bishop told National Journal.

Two linchpins of a package are emerging: the permanent LWCF authorization and a range of sportsmen provisions that would likely aim to broaden access to federal land and free up some firearm restrictions.

Members are also pushing onto the package dozens of parochial bills, which often deal with federal-land conveyance and management. High-profile, Trump-administration-backed legislation to direct energy revenue to cut into an $11 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog is no longer part of the negotiations, lawmakers told National Journal.

The LWCF program, which has helped federal authorities acquire land for parks and provides state grants for conservation projects since its inception in 1965, boasts majority support in both chambers. LWCF backers and other potential beneficiaries of a package, however, are far from taking a victory lap.

Leadership in both chambers, along with top appropriators, will still have to weigh in. And President Trump's threat to shut down the government is throwing the conservation campaign into further uncertainty.

“The threat of a shutdown is never good for anything at any time,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and an influential appropriator.

A hostile, barb-ridden meeting took place Tuesday in the Oval Office between Trump, House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over fiscal 2019 appropriations. Vice President Mike Pence participated but largely didn’t engage in the televised back-and-forth.

Trump is calling for $5 billion in border wall funding for fiscal 2019. Senate Democrats have agreed to $1.6 billion, but their House counterparts dispute even that amount. The president said he’d be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”

A stopgap measure is keeping the federal government funded through Dec. 21.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are now saying a funding deal may prove elusive, and the top appropriator in the Senate suggested that broader uncertainty could thwart plans to tack other provisions onto a spending bill, such as the lands package or tax extenders.

“As an appropriator, the fewer things that we put on an appropriations bill, the generally easier they’re passed,” Sen. Richard Shelby, the Appropriations Committee chairman, told National Journal. “But having said that, [leadership in both chambers] have some say-so about what we put together, so I don’t know.”

To make matters worse for proponents of an LWCF-led lands package, sticking points remain on the contents of a deal despite the confidence aired by Bishop.

A row is now emerging on a land transfer for the site that hosts Robert F. Kennedy stadium, the dilapidated former home of the Washington Redskins. Team owner Daniel Snyder is aiming to build a stadium on the federally owned site.

But many Democrats, including soon-to-be House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, are objecting to signing off on unfettered development.

Meanwhile, the office of Speaker Paul Ryan is backing an add-on to prohibit an Endangered Species Act listing nationwide for the gray wolf, an iconic but often mischievous animal in Ryan’s Wisconsin and other Midwestern states, according to multiple sources who declined to go on the record because of the sensitivity of the talks.

That gray-wolf language is largely considered a nonstarter for Democrats, who are typically more supportive of federal protections. A bill to force the Interior Secretary to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife in the lower 48 states passed the House with only 9 Democratic supporters in November. The 196-180 vote took place on a Friday, and more than 50 members didn’t show up.

Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin ally of the speaker and lead sponsor on the gray-wolf legislation, told National Journal that he’s continuing to push Ryan to insist on the language in a lands package or any other vehicle.

“My hope is—and I think he understands this issue—that he fights to keep it in, and gives us a win for Northern rural, central and Western states,” Duffy said. “But I don’t have a blood-brother handshake on it.”

Many Republicans and some Democrats routinely champion the state—over federal—role in species management. But even Republicans admit the language could tank a lands package.

Ryan’s office declined to comment on his position on the gray-wolf language. But a spokesperson for the speaker said language is part of the negotiations.

“There are very serious conversations happening right now,” the spokesperson said, referring to the lands package. “These conversations are going to continue and hopefully there’s a resolution before the end of the year.”

Meanwhile, a Republican source on Capitol Hill said the support from Ryan’s office for the gray-wolf language is creating tension. “Everything is really sensitive right now and precarious with staff in the negotiations,” the source said.

Democrats, including Grijalva, say a lands package is achievable. But Grijalva pointed to Endangered Species Act language as a potential poison pill.

“Delisting of species … we don’t want to be part of the lands package,” he said. “If they don’t take some of the stuff that we wanted, which was our dream request, and they drop the delisting, then we have a pretty good package.”

The pending change of hands in the House is palpable on Capitol Hill. Democrats are generally more supportive of LWCF, the prize item in a lands package for many on that side of the aisle, and a Democratic House provides potential action on lands next Congress if talks fall through. The LWCF expired at the end of September.

“There’re no jam jobs happening on this lands package. Either people get to ‘yes’ and it happens or people want to put in controversial stuff and the package fails,” said a Senate Democratic staffer.

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