In time of crises, lands bill gives Senate a chance to unite

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FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2018 file photo, emigrant Peak is seen rising above the Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River near Emigrant, Mont. Lawmakers have reached bipartisan agreement on an election-year deal to double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

WASHINGTON – At a time of national crises, the Senate has been able to come together on a topic both parties celebrate: the great outdoors.

While the country copes with the coronavirus, an economic downturn and a reckoning over racism, lawmakers have reached bipartisan agreement on an election-year deal to double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks.

If approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, the Great American Outdoors Act would be the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century. The bill, set for a Senate vote this coming week, would spend about $2.8 billion per year on conservation, outdoor recreation and park maintenance.

“Americans have been spending a lot of time indoors” as a result of the pandemic, said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., one of the bill’s chief sponsors. “They are ready to get into the great outdoors.’’

Gardner and Sen. Steven Daines, R-Mont., have pushed for the bill, first convincing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that he should take it up, then persuading Trump at a White House visit.

McConnell told the two senators, who are both seeking reelection this year, that he would not consider the bill unless Trump was on board. Gardner and Daines are among the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, and each represents a state where the outdoor economy and tourism at sites such as Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks play an outsize role.

At a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in late February, Gardner and Daines made their case.

“This is a legacy thing,'' Gardner told Trump, pointing to a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that dominates the room.