Earlier today the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act, allocating billions to support outdoor recreation in two separate ways. The first is by providing $9.5 billion over the next five years to help the National Park Service and other federal land-management agencies address their maintenance backlogs. Federal public lands are suffering from $20 billion in deferred maintenance costs, with $12 billion of that accumulated by the National Park Service. The second is to mandate that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), widely considered the nation’s single best funding tool for outdoor recreation, be permanently financed to its maximum allotment of $900 million annually. In March the president called for such a bill to land on his desk.
It’s a remarkable breakthrough at a time when the White House has been hostile to federal conservation and land-management agencies and to the LWCF; Trump’s proposed 2021 budget slashed the Park Service budget by $587 million and allocated just $15 million to the LWCF, a mere 1.6 percent of its allotment. The bill passed by a vote of 73 to 25. Proponents, including the bill’s sponsor, Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado, tout the Great American Outdoors Act as a way to get people back to work after millions have been laid off in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Years of bipartisan work have led to this moment and this historic opportunity for conservation,” says Gardner. “Today the Senate passed not only the single greatest conservation achievement in generations but also a lifeline to mountain towns and recreation communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced their version of the legislation in the House of Representatives on June 4, and passage of that version is expected in the coming weeks, clearing the way for the president to sign the bill into law.
“We are going to have to rebuild the economy, and this can be a really big part of that,” says Democratic senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, noting that nationally, outdoor recreation contributes $778 billion in consumer spending and supports 5.2 million jobs, yet “our trails and campgrounds aren’t in the shape that they should be, which directly impacts economic activity on public lands and in gateway communities.”
In May, more than 850 signatories representing conservation organizations, local governments, and state and regional tourism boards urged congressional leaders to support the bill. “The Great American Outdoors Act will ensure a future for nature to thrive, kids to play, and hunters and anglers to enjoy,” they wrote.
Established in 1965, the LWCF has funded some $18.4 billion in land acquisitions and facilities constructions over time, ranging from expanding national parks to building bike paths, baseball diamonds, and boat ramps. Every single county in the nation has had a project aided by the LWCF. Yet it has been funded to its maximum $900 million annual allotment only twice in its history and generally averages about $450 million a year. Conservationists have been working for decades to guarantee that the LWCF, which is paid for out of offshore oil- and gas-drilling royalties, be fully and permanently funded rather than have the remainder siphoned off to other government programs.
The portion of the bill that funds maintenance backlogs on federal public lands was originally floated by Trump administration officials. The idea was to help pay down the National Park Service’s $12 billion maintenance backlog with oil and gas royalties from public lands and was written into the Restore Our Parks Act. When that bill was bundled with LWCF funding efforts to create the Great American Outdoors Act, maintenance backlog funding was expanded to include the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management, in addition to the Bureau of Indian Education. Seventy percent of the $9.5 billion would go to the Park Service, 15 percent to the Forest Service, and 5 percent to each of the other agencies.
Conservationists welcome the expanded bill. The Forest Service alone has a $5 billion maintenance backlog on trails, campgrounds, and other facilities, notes Adam Cramer, executive director of the Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of outdoor-recreation advocacy groups. “Our national parks are our country’s crown jewels,” Cramer says, “but the rest of our national public lands are what make up the actual crown. The amount and diversity of outdoor-recreation opportunities, including hunting and fishing on our national forests, BLM lands, and wildlife refuges, is staggeringly huge.”
For many conservationists, the Great American Outdoors Act has been a lightning bolt out of the blue, sparked by a tweet from President Trump. “I’m calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” he tweeted on March 3. He went on to give credit to two Republican senators, Colorado’s Gardner and Montana’s Steve Daines, both of whom had visited the president in the Oval Office on February 27 to urge support for the bill. Many have commented on the fact that both Gardner and Daines are facing tough reelection campaigns in states where constituents prize outdoor recreation. (Daines is tied with his Democratic opponent, and Gardner trails his opponent, in the most recent polls.)
At the time, Democratic senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, a longtime LWCF supporter, wryly called the bill’s emergence “a miracle.”
Lately, there has been bipartisan support for conservation measures. Last year the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which created six new National Park Service units and 1.3 million acres of wilderness, passed the Senate by a vote of 92 to 8. “Public lands and waters are one of the things that are capable of bringing all Americans together,” New Mexico’s Heinrich says. “I see the economic benefits of public lands being talked about vigorously in smaller communities in this cycle.”
Heinrich lauds Republican senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio, in addition to Gardner and Daines, with being tireless champions of the Great American Outdoors Act, which he says was named “to appeal to the White House.”
Heinrich, who most observers credit with driving the effort to expand maintenance funding beyond the Park Service, explains that while the Bureau of Indian Education doesn’t have a recreation mission, it was included in the bill because, by “historical accident,” the agency was placed in the Department of the Interior, and therefore, he says, “time and again their funding levels get left out. Sometimes you have to deal with the history that puts us where we are.”
Politics aside, the bill stands to benefit every American, especially now. “We are seeing during the pandemic how important walking outside is to people’s well-being,” says Heinrich. “Right now more than 100,000 kids in this country don’t have a park within a ten-minute walk of their house,” he says, noting that the LWCF can remedy that. “The rebuilding can be as equitable as we want it to be.”