Senator Angus King’s Restore Our Parks Act Brings Maine Values to the Nation

This week the Senate passed legislation that will provide needed funds for national parks around the country

The drive from Calais and the Canadian border to the southern tip of Maine is a solid four hours. Interstate 95, lined with dense forests and winding estuaries, is a faster drive, but Route 1 rewards the explorer with its rugged coastlines and views of Penobscot Bay archipelagos and Acadia National Park. The off-ramps ramble west towards lakes and mountains to Baxter National Park and Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine at 5,267 feet. Veering in any direction offers what many stressed-out urbanites today call a “vista bath” at a time when a yearning to escape the modern world has never been higher. In a world teeming with over seven billion people and a global pandemic, Maine’s vastness delivers a sense of agency and renewal for those who take in its unspoiled land. In much of the world today, protected land, water, and open space are no longer a given. The world is at our doorstep, and it has become abundantly clear—as more and more pristine land disappears—that public land and America’s national parks require tending and conservation is needed in abundance.

This week the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which includes Maine Senator Angus King’s Restore Our Parks Act and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a longtime federal recreation program. The bill ensures the full $900 million of royalties will go directly to LWCF and will no longer be subject to federal appropriations, where the money was often siphoned off for other projects. The bill will go to the House next for a vote.

For King, the legislation is deeply personal. A ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources’s Subcommittee on National Parks, King saw an opening for land conservation and park restoration when LWCF’s funding was being revisited. While Congress prepared the new Great American Outdoors Act – sponsored by Maine’s Senator Collins and Senator King, along with 59 other senators – to shore up funding for recreational assets across the country, King joined a bipartisan group of his colleagues, including Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), to introduce the Restore Our Parks Act, bipartisan legislation that would directly and specifically address the nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog at the National Park Service (NPS). 

Acadia National Park, alone, suffers from over $65 million of neglected upkeep to roads, visitor centers, and the likes. This new funding for national parks will not cover the full backlog overnight, but it will bring jobs, and a portion of it will come home to help Maine. A recent study by NPS found that the Restore Our Parks Act will support an average of 40,300 direct jobs and 100,100 direct and indirect jobs in America over the next five years.

 “Our national parks amaze, astound, and awe millions of Americans each year,but in order to accommodate so many visitors, the parks need to be well-maintained,” says King who epitomizes old-school Maine. Listening to King eulogize the urgency of preserving our national parks is akin to hearing Robert Redford’s recent narration of the sweeping national parks documentary, both lending gravitas for a new generation who is perhaps first learning of the  legacy of President Teddy Roosevelt. At the turn of the last century, upon becoming president, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. It is difficult not to recognize something deeply meaningful in this bill when King explains that, “the existing $12 billion maintenance backlog threatens to prevent future generations from accessing these beautiful public lands, which is simply unacceptable. This bipartisan legislation helps address this backlog and ensures that parks from Acadia to Zion will remain open and available for years to come.” 

Under the umbrella of the new Great American Outdoors Act, the Restore Our Parks Act and the funding for LWCF will go hand in hand. King describes LWCF, created in 1965, as a beautifully symmetrical concept but one that did not deliver on its full promise. The primary source of revenue for the LWCF is from federal oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. “The people of America own mineral rights all over the country on federal land and offshore, off of all of our states, and they should be paid for the rights to use this and extract from this land.”

Senator King calls the original congressional act in 1965, a brilliant idea. “You take money from the exploitation of public lands and give it back to the people in new public lands or in the preservation of public lands. The problem was…Congress stole it.” While the idea created a dedicated fund that now produces almost a billion dollars a year, it had to be appropriated every year, and Congress would use it for other purposes. Some years LWCF would receive $100 million, another year maybe $300 million. “Only twice in the last 65 years, has it gotten the full allocation. What’s going to happen this week is a permanent allocation of all of that money to conservation,” says King. There has long been a formula for how much goes to these coastal states and how much goes to LWCF, but now all of the money will go to LWCF to fund recreation across American, from baseball parks to tennis courts to recreation assets and land conservation. While setting things right for the long-established LWCF is a key part of this Trump administration’s passing of the Great American Outdoors Act, it is the Restore Our Parks Act that King has been advocating for since the start.

The Restore Our Parks Act is an entirely new endeavor with its own funding formula based on the price of the royalties that are paid for extraction. King anticipates that their proposal will total about $6 billion in funding to restore and upkeep national parks over five years, about $1.2 billion a year, and not one tax dollar. “It doesn’t fully fund the deficit for the national parks, but it’ll do more than half of it and put us on a good track,” King says.

It is surprising to think that the largest land conservation bill in 50 years comes under an administration highly favorable to industry. President Trump’s administration has been cozy from his earliest days of campaigning with coal and oil executives. Industry players are in key executive branch roles including David Bernhardt, aecretary of the Interior and previously a longtime energy industry lobbyist, who is leading this Great American Outdoors Act. It’s not hard to be sceptical. The New York Times, Salt Lake City Tribune, and other publications have reported on how the  Trump administration has finalized plans to allow mining and energy drilling on a million acres of national land, and often turned a blind eye to coal mining by the likes of New York City VC–owned coal startups near National Parks, most recently in Utah. “Together these moves were the largest rollback in public lands protection in United States history,” the New York Times wrote recently. King responded that what is needed is policies, good judgment, caution, and a pivot to green energy.

“In the long run, I hope we can get away from fossil fuels,” says King. “Maybe [one day] we won’t be making money off of selling oil for offshore drilling. Revenues from offshore wind in federal waters are not in this bill, but they’re going to have to pay a royalty, just like if they were drilling for oil. That’s not covered right now, but [Senator] Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island has an amendment on that, and I’m hoping that in the future we can deal with this, too. That’s a clean alternative for similar kinds of revenues.”

When pressed again on how the Great American Outdoor Act risks federal land use for coal, oil and gas executives, King consistently brings the conversation back to the bipartisan nature of this bill and offers a glimpse into what comes next. “What we need next is the right policies. The law that governs what they call hard rock mining is essentially the same as it’s been since something like 1872. And I think it needs to be reviewed. What are the royalties? What should they be? This property belongs to the people of America. If you’re taking coal or oil or whatever, it is that is part of the property. The people of America need to be fairly compensated.”

“We are thankful for the Maine Congressional delegation’s support of this bipartisan bill that will fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as the deferred maintenance in our country’s national parks,” said Shawn Gorman, Executive Chairman and great grandson of L.L. Bean. “The outdoors provides many restorative benefits to our overall health and wellbeing and by passing the Great American Outdoors Act, more Americans will positively benefit from expanded access to our country’s public spaces.”

As we discuss King looking forward to returning to Maine on July 2, and his many legislative turns for land conservation in the state, he sees this historic legislation as not only a personal win for his longtime mission to conserve land but also a sign of what bipartisan collaboration can deliver Americans. “Senator Lamar Alexander is a thoroughgoing Republican. But, boy, does he love the Great Smokies, and he cares so deeply about our national parks. I’ve been to his house. He’s literally in the shadow of that wonderful park.” That too may be part of his legacy.

In a time of great uncertainty in America, King sees this historic bill as something hopeful. “I think people should feel that not all is lost, that there are opportunities for us to do things that are important.”

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