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Policy: Environment & Energy

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell hits Capitol Hill to drum up support for conservation program

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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is making the rounds on Capitol Hill in hopes of swaying lawmakers to fully fund and permanently reauthorize a 50-year-old conservation program that expires next year.

Jewell held a series of meetings with lawmakers Wednesday about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses offshore drilling revenue to offer states and local governments matching grants for conservation projects and easements for hunting and fishing, wetlands and parks. The fund is set to expire in 2015, and its supporters are trying to convince congressional Republicans to permanently extend it and to fully fund it at $900 million for just the second time in its history.

"Why should it be at 900 [million dollars]? Because the revenues from oil and gas production have been coming in that should have been funding this and it's being used by Congress to fund other things," Jewell told reporters on the sideline of a Washington event hosted by a handful of conservation groups. "The intent was we're taking something out of the earth, we ought to give something back to the earth. And we're not doing that."

Jewell, who has trumpeted the program's benefits in stops across the country in recent weeks, has some key congressional players in her camp.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who comes from an oil-patch state, supports the full funding and permanent reauthorization that President Obama's budget calls for, an aide told the Washington Examiner. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Richard Burr of North Carolina also have lent their support to the program. The fund has a number of boosters on the House side as well.

But that's not to say the job of convincing spendthrift House Republicans will be easy.

They have signaled they're not willing to give the program full funding, as the House-passed Interior and Environment spending bill gave it $152 million for fiscal 2015. That's less than half of enacted level for this year, though more than the draft spending bill for fiscal 2014, which zeroed out the program.

"I think it's way low. And I think they know it's way low," Jewell said. "I'm not happy with $150 million. Not going to say I'm happier with it than zero — I think zero is outrageous, and I don't think they'd ever credibly go there because of what they'd hear from the people in their home states that care deeply about these programs."

Sen. Jon Tester said that there are several ways to proceed on reauthorizing and funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. One is to tie it to a package of public lands bills, which the Montana Democrat said he's pushing for. Another would be to wrap it together with other programs that need reauthorization, such a plan in which the federal government offers payments to offset local property tax losses due to hosting non-taxable federal lands within their borders.

The latter, though, would invite questions of how to pay for the programs without significantly raising the deficit, said Tester, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I don't think any of this stuff is easily dealt with, but it's got to be dealt with," Tester told reporters.

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