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Endangered Republican senators like Arizona’s Martha McSally provided key backing for the public lands bill the U.S. Senate passed June 17, a possible indication the issue holds increasingly bipartisan appeal.
The legislation would provide $9.5 billion over five years to pay down the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog and permanent funding at $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides support for natural areas and recreation activities.
All Senate Democrats present, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and 28 of 53 Republican senators, including McSally, voted for the bill. The bill could be particularly helpful for the reelection chances of lead sponsor Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who reportedly lobbied for President Donald Trump’s support for the measure earlier this year. The chamber passed the bill by a 73-25 vote.
Overall, eight of the nine most vulnerable GOP incumbents running for re-election this year — as rated by the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections — voted for the bill. Texas’s John Cornyn was the exception.
Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonpartisan group that advocates for conservation policies and strongly supported the bill, said Daines, Gardner and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico led the effort to get the bill through the Senate.
McSally, whom Gov. Doug Ducey appointed to the Senate after two terms in the House, didn’t sit on any environment-related committees while in the House and wasn’t “at the forefront” of shepherding the Senate bill, Tawney said. But she became supportive as she learned more about it, he added.
“I don’t think she knew too much about this issue,” Tawney said. “She has really gotten educated on what this bill is and what it means for the people of Arizona and what it could mean going forward. We’ve been really pleased with the maturation of her thinking on this bill in particular.”
In a statement, McSally said the bill “will restore Arizona’s crown jewel national parks” and help the state’s outdoor recreation economy.
Arizona sites need more than $500 million for deferred maintenance projects, according to a 2018 National Parks Service report that pegged the national backlog at $11.9 billion.
An analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated direct spending and related economic impacts of the bill would add 100,000 “job-years” to the national economy.
Polls show funding the National Park Service and the Land and Water Conservation Fund are overwhelmingly and increasingly popular. In a Pew Charitable Trusts poll last year, 82% of respondents said they wanted Congress to pay up to $1.3 billion to address the National Parks backlog, up from 76% in 2018.
The issue has particular resonance in the West. A 2019 survey by Gottlieb Strategic Research for the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, found 86% of Arizona voters had a somewhat or very favorable opinion of the National Park Service. Three-quarters of Arizona voters said a candidate’s positions on public lands, waters and wildlife issues are somewhat or very important.
Little electoral impact
Despite the issue’s popularity, McSally’s vote may ultimately have little impact on her re-election, said Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Voters are focused on other issues and, in a presidential election year, are likely to base their votes for Senate on their party preference at the top of the ticket, she said.
“Even in normal times, most Americans do not pay much attention to what happens inside of Congress,” Norrander wrote in an email. “[W]ith the current situation, most voters would be more concerned about COVID-19 and the economy.”
Some environmental groups are still wary of the conservation records of some of the GOP senators who voted for the bill.
“They voted right on this one, but it won’t erase their terrible environmental records,” said Hannah Blatt, the communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s political advocacy arm, EDF Action. “They have done nothing to stop the administration’s relentless attacks on our air and water. … The truth is that this is a convenient way for McSally, Gardner and Daines to try to gain political cover.”
Blatt said McSally’s votes to confirm the heads of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department, who each previously lobbied for fossil fuel interests, were more important reflections of her overall environmental record. McSally also voted for measures that would weaken the Antiquities Act and against a bill to reinstate tougher carbon pollution limits.
The League of Conservation Voters gave McSally a 14% score for 2019, up from a lifetime average of 7%.
Still, GOP support for public lands funding represents a shift, said Kevin Dahl, the Arizona senior project manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“I think it’s clearly a change, mostly because of the associated funding,” Dahl said.
The bill would provide funding from fees from oil and gas extraction on federal lands and offshore drilling activity.
Adam Sarvana, a spokesman for the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson), said House members of both parties support the bill — including Democratic leaders who control the floor schedule. The committee marked up two separate bills last year that comprise a Senate version of the bill; no changes would likely be made before it sees a House floor vote, Sarvana said.
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