with Paulina Firozi

The Senate is poised to vote on an outdoor recreation bill that will provide a political boost to two vulnerable GOP senators out West.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave a lift to Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) by announcing late last week that he will schedule a vote next month on a public lands bill both have championed.

The legislation could potentially deliver millions of dollars to national parks and other public lands in their states ahead of the November election. 

The bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act, would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funnels revenue from drilling for offshore oil into everything from expanding major wildlife preserves to building neighborhood basketball courts. Senate Democrats largely support the measure, so the chances of its being approved are good.

The perennially underfunded program would get at $900 million a year. It briefly lapsed out of existence during the partial government shutdown that started at the end of 2018, and Congress only gave it permanent authorization last year. 

The bill also would create a new, $9.5 billion pot of money over the next five years to fix leaky pipes, repave roads and repair other worn-out infrastructure in national parks, national forests and on other public lands. The National Park Service says it has a daunting $12 billion backlog of maintenance work to be done.

Colorado’s economy is sustained in part by waves of tourists who come to visit its four major national parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park, which with 4.7 million visitors last year was the third-most visited major park.

Similarly, Montana is home to Glacier National Park and shares Yellowstone, the nation’s oldest national park, with Wyoming and Idaho.

McConnell’s announcement came after Gardner threatened to scuttle the Senate’s Memorial Day recess because of lawmaker inaction.

The Republican from Colorado took to Twitter last week to say it was “unfathomable” that the Senate is going on recess without doing more to address the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to the outdoors recreation bill, Gardner also called for the Senate to immediately pass an amendment to give small businesses receiving emergency loans more time to spend the money before leaving for recess.

“Now is not the time for the Senate to go home,” Gardner said.

The Senate majority leader responded on the Senate floor the next day by promising votes on both the conservation package and the reforms to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Thanking Gardner and Daines, McConnell called the recreation bill “a milestone achievement to secure public lands and ensure their upkeep well into the future.”

“This vote will be one of the most historic conservation wins in Montana and the nation in decades,” Daines said in a statement.

Gardner and Daines face tough reelection races against Democrats who have already won statewide office. 

John Hickenlooper, a former two-term Colorado governor, is seeking to challenge Gardner, while Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will likely face off against Daines.

Hickenlooper hit at Gardner for only getting the promise of the votes after the recess. 

Gardner, he wrote on Twitter, “made a big stink about keeping the Senate in Washington, but less than a day later, he’s given up and seems happy to do whatever Mitch McConnell says.” 

With 58 co-sponsors, the bipartisan bill should have little trouble passing the Senate. 

The pair of GOP senators secured President Trumps backing of the bill in March. It is a rare policy area where several major environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, find common ground with Trump. 

Land Tawney, head of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, suggested now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is the perfect time to pass the bill.

“Our public lands and waters have traditionally been places of refuge, of solace and of adventure,” Tawney said. “Never has this been truer than right now, when we need to recenter and get our minds right.”

The disasters ahead

The coronavirus pandemic means there’s a shortage of volunteers who frequently help with disasters. 

An army of volunteers usually helps shelter and aid hurricane and wildfire victims, among other disasters. But this year, the pandemic means the pool of volunteers has been slashed. “Most volunteers are older people at higher risk from the virus, so this year they can’t participate in person,” the New York Times reports. “Typically more than five million volunteers work in disaster relief annually, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, an association of nonprofit groups, but this year he expects the number to decline by 50 percent.” 

With just a fraction of the volunteers, the usual relief demand may not be met.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is already short-staffed because of the pandemic. States have halted traditional agreements to assist each other in disaster response. And traditional procedures for sheltering victims in gyms and other spaces are being adjusted to avoid transmission risk. “It is the latest in a cascading series of problems facing an already fraying system ahead of what is expected to be an unusually severe hurricane season combined with disasters like this week’s dam collapse and flooding in Michigan, a state particularly hard hit by Covid-19,” the Times adds. 

In Michigan, meanwhile, the recent dam disaster could have happened in many other communities. 

The disaster that damaged two dams and forced 11,000 residents in the Midland area in Michigan to flee was not a surprise to hydrologists and civil engineers who have been cautioning that climate change and increased runoff was putting pressure on the structures. 

Now they’re warning it could happen to many more of the nation’s aging dams, Moriah Balingit, Kayla Ruble, Steven Mufson and Frances Stead Sellers report.

“Many older dams have lost the purpose for which they were built: generating electricity or running mills. According to an American Rivers database, more than 1,700 such dams have been removed, including five last year in Michigan,” they write. “The funding for that process is usually for habitat restoration, according to [Brian Graber, senior director for river restoration at the nonprofit American Rivers], who said removal projects are often supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or nonprofits.” 

The water is rising too fast for marshes protecting New Orleans to keep it at bay. 

Rising sea levels are set to overwhelm the wetlands on Louisiana’s coast, a new study has found. The marshes protect New Orleans, as well as the fisheries and tourism key to the state’s economy, Chris Mooney reports. The wetlands could be overcome within 50 years if sea level rise surpasses 6 to 9 millimeters per year, according to researchers.

“Researchers found that the type of wetlands that exist in present day coastal Louisiana have rarely persisted when rates of sea level rise surpassed 3 millimeters per year over long periods of time,” Mooney writes. “Current sea levels are rising at rates that already slightly exceed that, and those rates are increasing.” 

Coronavirus fallout

The Environmental Protection Agency is working toward reopening.

The agency is beginning a slow process of resuming work at some of its regional offices. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told employees in an email that it will bring staff back to its Region 4 office in Atlanta, E&E News reports, as well as the Region 7 office in Lenexa, Kan., and the Region 10 office in Seattle. 

“Our plan for an eventual phased return to EPA offices will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures your health and safety,” Wheeler told staff in the email. 

“Still, most employees in Regions 4, 7 and 10 are expecting to be teleworking during the coming weeks as EPA implements the three-phased plan,” E&E adds. “ … Union officials at EPA were angered by the plans to reopen, saying it was too soon, given COVID-19 is still prevalent throughout the country.” 

Beaches and lakes continue to reopen across the country. 

Images of crowds at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over the weekend showed many people breaching social distancing during a holiday weekend as they packed into the tourist destination, Derek Hawkins reports.

“The scenes underscored how some have interpreted the loosening of coronavirus restrictions ahead of the Memorial Day holiday as an invitation to return to a pre-pandemic version of normal. Amid varied and sometimes conflicting orders from state and local officials, people across the country have been left to decide on their own how strictly to follow the rules,” he writes. 

Zion National Park also saw a very busy weekend. 

The whole park was full by 11 a.m. Sunday over the holiday weekend. “Zion, a scenic park about 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas and popular with Southern Nevadans, is currently open for day use only. The park reopened in a limited fashion May 13, ” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.

In other news

Ohio has approved what could be the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America. 

The six icebreaker wind turbines approved late last week would stand in Lake Erie, but there are conditions that could complicate its progress.

The Ohio Power Siting Board “placed 33 conditions — including that the turbines could not turn at night between March 1 and November 1, to limit risk to birds and bats,” Cleveland.com reports. “The developer, the nonprofit Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo.), says the limits may kill the demonstration project.” 

An auto trade and lobbying group said it plans to file a motion to intervene in the litigation over the Trump administration’s clean car standards rollback. 

The motion from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation “asserts that the group opposes a petition by the Competitive Enterprise Institute alleging that the SAFE Vehicles Rule is too strict,” E&E News reports.

John Bozzella, president and CEO of the alliance, told reporters CEI “has a long-standing position that there ought to be flat standards. We disagree, and we want to push back against that.” 

Interestingly, five members of the auto group — Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America — declined to endorse the motion. All but Mercedes-Benz had struck a deal last year with the California Air Resources Board to continue improving fuel efficiency at a pace closer in line with what the Obama administration had called for.