By MATTHEW DALY , Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A popular program that supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the country expired after Congress could not agree on language to extend it.

Lawmakers from both parties back the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but the program lapsed Monday amid dispute over whether its renewal should be part of a broader package of land-use and parks bills.

A Senate committee approved a bill on Tuesday to permanently reauthorize the fund and ensure it is fully paid for.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 16-7 to endorse a bill offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the panel's top Democrat. Five Republicans joined all 11 Democrats to advance the bill to the full Senate.

Cantwell calls the conservation fund "the key tool" that Congress uses to help communities "preserve recreation opportunities and make the most cost-effective use of the land."

The committee also approved a separate bill to address a growing backlog for maintenance projects at national parks. A bill led by Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would use federal drilling royalties to create a multibillion maintenance fund for parks across the country. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Angus King, I-Maine.

Portman said he has been concerned about the maintenance backlog — now estimated at about $12 billion — since he was budget director under President George W. Bush more than a decade ago.

"We put something in the budget to deal with the backlog, not enough, but Congress has tried in different ways," Portman said on Tuesday. "To me, it's about good stewardship. It's about saving tax dollars over the long term with predictable funding for capital expenditures. "

Portman and other lawmakers also praised the bill to reauthorize the 54-year-old conservation fund.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called the fund one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created. Burr called the congressional inaction frustrating, since no one disagrees that the program is valuable and cost-effective.

The program uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and public recreation projects around the country. The fund is authorized to collect $900 million a year but generally receives less than half that amount from Congress.

"I can't think of a better legacy we can leave for generations to come than to permanently reauthorize" the fund, Burr said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, agreed. Bishop chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and is a key player on a range of public lands bills. He said in a statement Monday that "LWCF can and will be reauthorized," but said the best path forward is in a broader legislative package that addresses a growing maintenance backlog at national parks and other lands-related issues.

Bishop and Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the resources panel, recently announced a bipartisan agreement to permanently reauthorize the LWCF and address the multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog at the park service and other agencies.

The resources panel approved the bill last month, but the House adjourned until mid-November without voting on it.

"LWCF expired because Republican leaders let it expire, not because it's controversial," Grijalva said Monday. "The worst outcome" would be for GOP leadership to hold the conservation program "hostage" as a way to advance unrelated priorities, he said.

"Now is not the time to tie LWCF's fate to bills that can't pass Congress on their own steam. Let's pass LWCF as soon as we get back in session and handle other issues as they arise," Grijalva said.

The House bill from Grijalva and Bishop did not include a full-funding guarantee for the program. The Senate bill guarantees full funding.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., urged permanent reauthorization of the conservation fund, which has typically been reauthorized in three-year increments.

"The permanence is important because you've got many individuals here who are working on longer-term projects and have the uncertainty of where we don't know if Congress is going to fund it from one year to the next," Daines said at a recent news conference in Montana.

Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, called the conservation fund "an example of the kind of thing that can pull Americans together, which I think we need a little bit more of now."


Associated Press writer Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.

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