Land conservation plan stirs fight over Trump restrictions

Matthew Brown
Associated Press

Billings, Mont. – Proposed land conservation purchases in dozens of states would preserve parts of natural areas in tourist destinations, U.S. officials announced Friday as lawmakers from both parties pushed back on Trump administration restrictions on how the money can be spent.

The $125 million in congressionally authorized spending 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.

In this Sept. 6, 2013, file photo, a woman kayaks on Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park, Mont.

It comes as some senators objected to an order last week from U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that empowers local and state officials to block the purchases. Bernhardt’s order also limits land acquisitions to property inside the existing boundaries of parks and refuges, rather than expanding their footprint.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., addresses his supporters early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 in Bozeman, Mont.

Notable among critics of the order is Sen. Steve Daines. The Montana Republican helped barter a bipartisan agreement that authorized the conservation fund purchases under the Great American Outdoors Act, which was signed into law in August.

Daines said in a statement that the order ran counter to “the transparency, collaboration, and partnerships that have made this critical conservation program so successful for decades.”

“This must be corrected going forward to ensure Montana voices are heard,” Daines said. “Fortunately, Congress maintains oversight.”

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia also have raised objections.

Udall called it a “last-gasp attempt” by the President Donald Trump’s administration to hinder land preservation efforts. Several conservation groups also have raised objections. A Tester spokesman said it was a “slap in the face” for the administration to push through the order just weeks before Trump leaves office.

In this Oct. 30, 2019, file photo, an alligator prowls the waters in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

An Interior Department official closely involved in the development of the spending plan defended Bernhardt’s order in an interview with The Associated Press. Margaret Everson, a counselor to Bernhardt, indicated there are no plans to rescind the order as Tester has requested.

“This idea about being a good neighbor and coordinating with state and local counterparts is a good idea,” she said. “That’s something that’s really important as we prioritize recreational access and opportunities for everybody.”

Tester spokesman Roy Loewenstein said the senator would push the administration of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden to quickly strike down Bernhardt’s order.