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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s DC Lawmakers OK Historic Act, Barely

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

Even before President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law Aug. 4, hunters, anglers and other conservationists hailed its bipartisan passage as a historic investment in the nation’s parks, wild places and natural resources.

The GAOA fully and permanently funds the $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund annually, and invests $9.5 billion in infrastructure repairs the next five years on public lands and waterways. These actions inspired the outdoors community. Consider this praise for Congressman Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, the lone GOP member of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation to vote with overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate to send the GAOA to the White House:

• “As a hunter and fisherman, I rely on public lands and waters to provide excellent habitat for animals and fish. As a father of two young children I enjoy unplugging and showing my kids the wonders nature has to behold.” – Ben Plass, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

• “From our children, grandchildren and beyond, this historic legislation’s impact on conservation and recreation will be enjoyed by Wisconsinites for generations.” – Bob Spoerl, Ducks Unlimited

• “(This) victory benefits our nation’s wild things, wild places, and the multitude of Americans who treasure the great outdoors.” – Tom Clay, Door County Land Trust

• “The LWCF has supported (hundreds of outdoor projects in Wisconsin since 1965), ranging from public-land purchases and habitat restoration to community parks, trails and playgrounds.” – Mike Carlson, Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts.

Minutes after Trump signed the GAOA, Gallagher called it a “major win for conservation and Northeast Wisconsin,” and a historic investment in the nation’s natural beauty. His 8th Congressional district includes all or part of 11 counties, and has received $12.98 million in LWCF funds for 321 projects in previous decades.

“(The GAOA) will help protect our state and community parks for years,” Gallagher said. “This is the most significant conservation package in a generation. … I’m thrilled the president has signed this into law, and I look forward to continue working with my colleagues on more bipartisan ways to protect our environment.”

The bill passed both houses of Congress by nearly identical 3-1 majorities. The Senate voted 73-25 on June 17, with 28 of 53 (53%) Republican senators joining 43 Democrats (100%), and two Independents to pass the measure. The bill’s companion legislation passed 310-107 in the House on July 22, but with less GOP support. Of the 185 House Republicans voting, 81 (44%) supported the bill, joining 229 of 231 Democrats (99%) for the overwhelming victory.

Among GOP lawmakers supporting the GAOA were congressmen Rep. Don Young, Alaska; Peter King, New York; three GOP representatives in Illinois; three in Michigan; and one in Minnesota. Among GOP senators voting for it were Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Marco Rubio, Florida; Lindsay Graham, South Carolina; Tom Cotton, Arkansas; and Charles Grassley, Iowa.

All Wisconsin Democrats voted for the GAOA: Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Madison; and Rep. Ron Kind (3rdDistrict), La Crosse; Gwen Moore (4th District), Milwaukee; and Mark Pocan (2nd District), Madison.

State Republicans opposing the GAOA were Sen. Ron Johnson, Oshkosh; and Rep. Ryan Steil (1stDistrict), Janesville; Rep. Glenn Grothman (6th District), Fond du Lac; and Rep. Tom Tiffany (7th District). The other, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (5th District), Brookfield, did not vote.

In other words, even though Wisconsin has received nearly $226 million in LWCF funds the past 55 years for outdoor recreation and public-access projects, our state’s Congressional delegation barely OK’d the GAOA, 5-4, as it passed 3-1 nationwide.

And just a reminder, the LWCF is not a tax on (say it with me, folks) “hard-working Americans.” This fund receives lease fees paid by fossil-fuel companies that drill offshore for oil and gas, and invests it on conservation projects back here on land. Imagine that: The LWCF compels companies profiting from publicly owned resources to compensate us, the American people.

Until passing the GAOA last week, Congress only once fully funded the LWCF since its 1965 enactment. Instead, Congress routinely diverted LWCF money to offset (hide) spending elsewhere. Under the GAOA, Congress can still review how and where those funds are used for conservation, but it can no longer shift them to unrelated programs.

Even so, when I contacted the four state lawmakers who rejected the GAOA to ask why they opposed it, Tiffany didn’t respond, and the other three said they didn’t like losing control of the money. Johnson called it “mandatory spending,” while Steil and Grothman said it put “spending on autopilot.”

Grothman also said: “The Great American Outdoor Act has a nice name, but this was really a transfer of power from the people to unelected Washington bureaucrats.”

Strong words, but how well has Congress represented “the people” on conservation matters? The LWCF has been authorized to receive $900 million annually in federal oil/gas royalties since 1964. In 2019, the Interior Department collected over $6 billion in those offshore royalties. If the LWCF had received the full $900 million specified, that’s only 15% of the royalties. Instead, Congress gave the LWCF $435 million, 48% of what the law requires, and only 7.25% of the royalties.

Despite such deceptive diversions by Congress the past half-century, Grothman’s 6th Congressional district (11 full or partial counties) has received $10.39 million in LWCF funds for 305 projects during that time. And the other opponents districts?

• Tiffany’s 7th Congressional district (26 full or partial counties) has received $15.95 million in LWCF funds for 389 projects.

• Steil’s 1st Congressional district (six full or partial counties) has received $13.82 million in LWCF funds for 198 projects.

It’s also fair to note that Steil, Tiffany and Grothman belong to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, whose stated mission is to “work with Congress, governors, and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting and trapping.” But based on the Department of Natural Resources’ license-sales records, only Steil is a bona fide hunter/angler. Tiffany hasn’t bought a license since 2016 and Grothman has never bought a license.

Meanwhile, hunters and anglers who belong to fish and wildlife organizations broadly support the scientifically trained agency professionals Grothman calls “bureaucrats.”

Land Tawney, president/CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the GAOA embodies the country’s capacity for teamwork: “Management and upkeep of our public lands and waters relies on sound science, professional resource managers, support by the president and his advisers to ensure sound management, and Congress’s willingness to allocate and support robust funding for the upkeep of our public estate.”

With the GAOA now law, let’s thank those in our Congressional delegation who support conservation, outdoor recreation, and the outdoors industry. And then urge the GAOA’s foes to quit posing as our advocates.

The Great American Outdoors Act mandates that fees paid by corporations for offshore oil/gas drilling will help fund the nation's conservation programs in perpetuity. — Patrick Durkin photo

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