Lankford Explains Why the Great American Outdoors Act May Be Less Than Great

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s speech.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today spoke on the Senate floor about the Senate’s consideration this week of the Great American Outdoors Act, which seeks to address the purchase and maintenance issues with federal lands. But Lankford told his fellow senators today that the bill lacks critical provisions that would help prevent significant amounts of debt and deficit spending.

As Lankford reminded the Senate today, this is not a new issue. In April 2016, Lankford opposed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), even though the maintenance backlog on federal lands back then already exceeded $18 billion. Lankford gave a speech on the Senate floor at that time that echoes many of the recommendations—and frustrations—he offered today on the floor.

Lankford highlighted the mismanagement of the current maintenance backlog of the LWCF in the first volume of Federal Fumbles: ways the government dropped the ball (page 108). Lankford noted in the report that Congress must allow the LWCF to also be used to take care of the deferred maintenance backlog. In volume 5 of Federal Fumbles, Lankford again highlighted the shortcomings of our land management policies and raised the dire budgetary implications of potential action to make LWCF spending mandatory (page 3).


The federal government currently owns about 640 million acres of land in the United States. Six hundred forty million acres is owned by the American people. That’s about 28 percent of all the land mass of the United States. So if you round the number up, so let’s say a quarter of all the property in the United States is all owned by the federal taxpayers. Now you can break that down. People immediately think, ‘well, that’s all the National Park Service.’ Actually the National Park Service is a pretty small amount of that. The Bureau of Land Management holds about 244 million acres, followed by the US Forest Service with 192 million acres, Fish and Wildlife Service at 89 million acres, and then the National Park Service at right at 80 million. The Department of Defense and some other agencies hold another 34 million acres. Altogether, 640 million acres. And growing.

But this doesn’t even account for all the land that’s controlled by the federal government, that’s just owned by the federal government. That 28 percent of all the property in the United States that’s owned by the federal government doesn’t take into account the 27 million plus acres that are also controlled by the federal government. Those are areas where they do conservation mitigation. Those are areas where they have other land in trust for other aspects. So all told, around 30 percent of the United States is owned or controlled by the federal taxpayer or by the federal government.

Now, that would all be fine and good if we were managing it well. But we’re not. On those properties right now, we have almost $20 billion in deferred maintenance backlog, almost $20 billion, just in things that haven’t been done, where the federal government has proved to be a bad land manager.

So there’s a bill that’s coming this week. It’s on the floor now being debated. The conversation is; how do we get better at maintaining the land that we have and how can we actually purchase additional property? Well there’s something that’s been around for a long time called the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has dollars that are set aside from offshore oil revenue to be able to then purchase areas of property, and that’s happened for decades and decades now. The problem is, we haven’t maintained that. And even the property that we buy that has maintenance issues, we don’t even fix the maintenance issues when we purchase the property.

So here’s the proposal that’s on the table this week. The proposal on the table this week is to double the amount of land acquisitions that we have and to be able to solve the maintenance issue that we’ve had for a long time because this conversation about the backlog in maintenance has been an ongoing issue. There’s finally a resolution to it. Here’s the resolution. After years and years of debating how do we reduce spending in one area so we can make sure we can do the maintenance we need to do, the final decision was made to be able to put a bill together that just says, ‘Forget it. Let’s just all add it to debt. Let’s just completely do debt purchasing of all of our maintenance stuff, and we’ll figure out some decades in the future how to be able to pay for that rather than determining how to pay for it now.’ Because there’s not an offset on how to be able to pay for the maintenance much less the maintenance that needs to be done. It’s not a shock to anyone.

I brought proposals to this years ago to say, ‘Why don’t we split the dollars that we have in the Land and Water Conservation Fund? Use half of those dollars to purchase new properties and half of it just to be able to work on maintenance.’ That was denied. To say, ‘No, that’s an irrational approach. We want to just buy more land. We’ll figure out later how to maintain it.’ Now we’re at that point of, we’ve got to figure out how to maintain it because an almost $20 billion backlog of maintenance is rising up and screaming at us all over the country. And instead of actually deciding how we’re going to do it, it’s a punt to say ‘We’ll figure it out later.’

But here was the fiscally responsible portion of it. We’ll say, ‘We’re not going to do it forever, just for the next five years of additional debt. Every single year about $2 billion we will spend all in debt money to be able to do this, and then we’ll figure out in the sixth year how to be able to take care of the rest.’ That’s the fiscally responsible portion of this, to say we’re not doing infinite amounts of debt, just the next five years. But the problem is, in the sixth year we’ll still have a maintenance backlog. We’ll still have issues, and there’s still not a plan to pay for the first $20 billion or for what is still coming. So my challenge is, what to be able to do with a bill that we need to fix and we need to be better managers of our land, but we’re managing our land by not managing our debt and not making the hard decisions that people have to make.

At your home, you can’t just say, ‘Everything needs to be fixed, but I can’t afford it, so I’ll just take out more debt, and I’ll fix everything.’ We have to make decisions on that’s going to have to wait so I can do this because it’s more important That’s the kind of thing I’d like to be sable to see with this.

Let me run through some ideas, all that are amendments that have already been brought, beginning with the most basic of them: take part of the money that already exists for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase new land and just split it and to say, ‘We’re going to dedicate dollars to maintenance, and we’re going to also have dollars to buy new properties. We just won’t be able to buy as many as fast as we want. We won’t be able to fix as many as we want, but we’re not adding additional debt spending to do it.’ It’s the same decision that families make all the time, to say ‘I’d love to have that nicer car, and I can have the nicer car if I just save up several years to get it.’ That’s one recommendation. There’s a second recommendation to this. There is a portion of this that gets into the budget scheming of everything that goes on.

Part of what’s happening in the Land and Water Conservation Fund—brace yourself for budget gimmicks here—moving it from what’s called appropriated dollars that we vote on every year to mandatory dollars that you only vote on once, and then every year it just keeps going. Think like Social Security here. Social Security was a vote a long time ago. It just keeps going year after year after year. We don’t vote on it each year. It just happens because it’s mandatory. The idea in this bill is to move the spending from appropriated each year like we do with the Department of Defense, for the Department of Education, or Health and Human Services, to take it out of that area and to move it towards mandatory, but then they still left the funds over in the appropriated side and said, ‘We’re also  going to spend those dollars as well.’ So the way the gimmick sets this up is it allows those funds spent last year to be spent on the mandatory side and a big hole on the normal side that we’ll just plus up to spend for other things.

My second idea is if we won’t split the dollars that we normally do—half in the purchase and half to maintain—at least dedicate the dollars that were left that aren’t spent on something else, spend those on maintenance. Because then we’ll only have half a billion dollars of new deficit rather than what this does at $2.5 billion of new deficit spending. So the first challenge is: split it. The second challenge is take the dollars that were, quote-unquote, left over and unappropriated dollars, and just dedicate that to only doing the maintenance funds that need to be done.

The third idea is pretty simple as well. This has a five-year tail on it on the maintenance at about $2 billion a year of additional debt spending. Well, I would just say this. If we’re only going to do maintenance for five years, then we should only do the purchasing, the big chunk, for five years as well. So that we sunset both of them. We’re not going to have this big plus-up in more and more purchasing at the same time we have to plan to maintain it long term. That as long as we’re going to maintain it, we’re also going to do purchasing. Just sunset it. That seems pretty commonsense as well.

Here’s a fourth idea. All of the purchases for new properties—when you purchase it, make sure that the dollars that have purchased it, there’s also dollars set aside to fix what was broken on it because what we find is when people want to sell property to the federal government, it’s because there are major problems on the land already and they can’t get another private seller. So they want to sell it to the federal taxpayer knowing there are problems in infrastructure on that property. So we buy property with major maintenance needs already on it, and it just backs up our backlog of maintenance even more. Put a requirement in that when we buy property, part of the purchase of it is also setting aside dollars for maintenance so we have to fix it right then rather than add it to the backlog of maintenance issues. That seems pretty commonsense. That also is not getting a hearing right now.

And I think that’s a problem because there are commonsense things that don’t drive us farther into debt, that aren’t going to cause years and years of problems in our budget, that maintain the properties that we have, maybe not as fast as we want to but start getting after our backlog of maintenance, that continue to allow us to be able to purchase new properties but just making sure that we’re actually managing the properties that we purchase. It’s a frustration for me, that we’re not having amendments in this process, that we’re not having the opportunity to be able to fix some of the things that are wrong with this bill because we do need to have federal lands. We do need to maintain the lands that we have. But we do need to honor our budgets for the future as well.

Why would we say we really need to maintain all this and purchase this, but we don’t have a plan for how to do it now, so we’ll just wait six years, do five years of debt spending, and then we’ll figure it out somehow six years from now?

You know what? Five years ago we were talking about this very same issue. This very same issue five years ago. We haven’t come up with an answer in the past five years because no one has been willing to say, ‘We have to do less. So we can take responsibility for what we have.’ We just want to do more and not have the accountability. So five years ago, until five years later now, to five years from now when this bill, quote-unquote, expires, and we’ll still have maintenance issues.

We need to start making hard decisions, and some of those hard decisions deal with the budget and making choices and saying, ‘There aren’t any options,’ and instead saying, There are options. I may not like them as well as the just-do-everything-all-at-once option, but there are options for how to do this.’ And we should have this debate to be able to figure out how to manage these dollars better. Maybe we will five years from now.