US agency cancels Trump policy on conservation purchases

FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2019, file photo, an alligator prowls the waters in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. Federal officials plan to purchase private property within the preserve to provide more wildlife habitat and access to hunting and fishing. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (Robert F. Bukaty, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BILLINGS, Mont. – U.S. Interior Department officials on Thursday canceled a Trump administration directive that gave local and state officials power to block purchases of land and water for conservation under a longstanding federal program.

Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega rescinded a November order from former Secretary David Bernhardt that had been criticized by Republicans and Democrats, who said the Trump administration ignored their wishes when it changed a program that’s paid for billions of dollars in conservation work over more than five decades.

"Interior’s actions today affirm our support for one of America’s most successful and popular conservation programs,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Shannon Estenoz in a statement. “We look forward to further strengthening this successful program to ensure that all communities – from hikers and sportsmen to urban and underserved communities – have access to nature and the great outdoors.”

In November, officials announced that $125 million in congressionally authorized spending under the conservation program would buy up private property inside the boundaries of places including Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, Kentucky’s Green River National Wildlife Refuge and Florida’s Everglades region.

Besides giving local officials veto power, Bernhardt’s order also limited land acquisitions to property inside the existing boundaries of parks and refuges, rather than expanding their footprint. Trump administration officials had said the order would have allowed the government to fulfill goals that were set when conservation areas were created, by filling in missing pieces of them.

Notable among the critics of the order was Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, a Trump loyalist who helped barter a bipartisan agreement that authorized the conservation fund purchases under the Great American Outdoors Act. The measure was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in August, and Republicans were able to point to it to blunt Democratic attacks against Daines and other lawmakers over their record on environmental issues during the 2020 election.

Bernhardt issued his order restricting how the money gets used less than a week after the election, drawing criticism from Daines, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia and others for undermining the conservation program.

They accused the Trump administration of using Bernhardt’s order to circumvent the intent of Congress and squandering the bipartisan goodwill created by passing last year's law.

Daines welcomed the move to revoke the order and said in a Thursday statement that the program was a critical tool for conservation.

“I look forward to continuing to see the Land and Water Conservation Fund program be a success for public access and conservation in Montana and across the country, which will be the case so long as we continue to rely on local input and follow the letter of the law," Daines said.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester called the move a victory for Montana's public lands and for private property owners. Bernhardt's order required landowners to get written support from county and state officials before they could sell land to the government through the program.

The conservation fund was established in 1964 to safeguard natural areas from development and protect wildlife. Money for land purchases comes from revenue from offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.

In a separate action affecting public lands, Interior officials said Thursday they were delaying for 60 days a Trump administration rule finalized in January that would have allowed companies to pay less money for extracting oil and gas from government-owned reserves.

The rule was expected to result in a $29 million decrease in annual royalty collections. It will be reexamined "to ensure that corporations aren't unfairly pocketing money that is owed to the American people,” Interior spokesperson Tyler Cherry said.

An oil industry lobbying group said the rule was developed after almost a decade of deliberations and should be retained.

“We encourage the administration to move forward with this rule, which will advance U.S. energy security and support development that generates billions in federal and state revenue,” said Frank Macchiarola with the American Petroleum Institute.


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