Why the Great American Outdoors Act Matters

During this pandemic-prolonged absence of competitive sports, we can at least count on C-SPAN for a daily dose of distraction and entertainment. The cutthroat arena of political MMA that can only be viewed in the U.S. Senate recently produced a real-world underdog tale for the ages with longstanding implications for outdoor aficionados of all walks.

Earlier this month, the notoriously gridlocked chamber took a major step toward attaining what many consider the Holy Grail of conservation legislation in the modern era. Known as the Great American Outdoors Act, the landmark legislative package—one that provides unprecedented benefits to the nation’s system of public lands—passed through the Senate with a rare showing of bipartisan support. The anticipated slam dunk victory now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives and eventually the Oval Office for the president’s signature.

Should the bill emerge triumphant, it’s the American public that will ultimately reap the spoils. Everyone from hikers to hunters, bikers to boaters, plus millions more who enjoy access to America’s 640 million acres of national public lands for countless other outdoor activities, will be rewarded with increased opportunities and improved infrastructure as they pursue their passions. And in states like Colorado, where the culture is largely rooted in public lands recreation, the ripple effect is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“Colorado’s public lands drive our businesses—from breweries and restaurants, to bike shops and fly-fishing guides—and inspire our adventures with family and friends,” said Steve Fechheimer, CEO of New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, CO. “The passage of GAOA is an incredible milestone in ensuring protections for our environment, our economy and our well-being.”

So What’s in the GAOA?

More than 20 years in the making, the Great American Outdoors Act (S.3422 ) ultimately combines two pieces of public lands legislation. The first piece, dubbed the Restore our Parks Act, establishes a five-year trust generated by revenues from energy development that provides up to $1.9 billion a year to begin addressing the more than $22 billion worth of maintenance backlogs at national parks and other public lands across the country. That includes everything from road and trail maintenance to facility improvements and even wildlife habitat.

The second piece fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) used to buy and improve public land. The fund, which is supposed to receive $900 million a year from offshore drilling royalties, is regularly raided by legislators and has only been fully funded twice since it was established in 1964.

Throughout its history, LWCF funds have been used to acquire and improve public lands in every county of every state, everything from New York’s Central Park to Yellowstone National Park.

When Does It Take Effect?

Once the bill is signed into law by the president, full funding begins in fiscal year 2021. The LWCF has used money from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties to conserve our public lands and waters across the country for more than 50 years already, and legislation passed in 2019 guaranteed that $900 million will be collected for the fund every year. The GAOA ensures that the money will go to its intended purpose.

The GAOA also establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, providing federal land management agencies with critical resources to address the deferred maintenance backlog on our public lands. The fund receives 50 percent of unallocated revenues generated from energy development on federal lands and waters, providing up to $9.5 billion over five years beginning in FY2021 through FY2025.

canoeing wilderness canoe trip Main allagash
Paddling lakes along northern Maine’s Allagash Waterway. Kate Sfeir / Shutterstock

Who Benefits From It?

From rock climbers in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to paddlers on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine, just about anyone who enjoys outdoor recreation has seen benefits from the LWCF, and those benefits will increase with the implementation of the GAOA.

Notably, the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund portion of the act promises funding for federal land management agencies above and beyond the National Parks Service. While the NPS will receive 70 percent of the funding ($1.3 billion a year), the remainder will be split between the U.S. Forest Service ($285 million), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ($95 million), Bureau of Land Management ($95 million) and Bureau of Indian Education ($95 million) to fund habitat improvement projects and other maintenance backlogs in those agencies.

“The National Parks Service maintenance backlog is the biggest part of it, but the rest of it is substantial too,” said Corey Fisher of Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. “The places that are most important to hunters and anglers are managed by the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, not the National Parks. So it was super important to groups like TU to have those included.”

Additionally, the LWCF provides matching grants to states and local governments to acquire and develop public outdoor recreation areas and facilities that provide close-to-home recreation opportunities that are readily accessible to youth, adults, senior citizens and the physically or mentally challenged in urban and rural communities.

Why It Matters Now:

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has long been recognized as the most powerful program we have for conserving habitat and opening access to the nation’s most precious natural resources, and its guaranteed funding couldn’t come at a more critical time. President Trump had nearly zeroed out the money for the LWCF in budgets he’d submitted to congress in recent years, only recently coming around in favor of the program that Senate bill sponsor Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) claims supports between 16-30 jobs for every million spent in LWCF funds. Fixing the national parks promises to create as many as 100,000 additional jobs, making the Great American Outdoors Act an essential economic recovery tool that also enhances our public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities.

“The Great American Outdoors Act is an enormous victory for public lands and for rural economies here in the Mountain West,” said Teresa Martinez, Executive Director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “It will address vital needs on our trails and forests. It will create jobs. And by fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it will be absolutely critical to our efforts to complete the Continental Divide Trail.”

Why It Matters in the Long Run:

The Great American Outdoors Act offers a sustainable funding solution that expands and protects valuable public lands from the impacts of overuse destined to exacerbation over time. While their popularity continues to grow, America’s national parks and public lands have been underfunded and understaffed for decades. And as urban populations swell, local outdoor recreation opportunities remain in decline, increasing barriers of entry to fundamental activities like hiking, biking and fishing that have emerged as critical ingredients in the recipe for both mental and physical health.

“With the pandemic shining a bright light on the need for equitable access to natural spaces, securing LWCF permanent funding and tackling a substantial portion of the public lands maintenance backlog will greatly increase recreation opportunities on public lands and in neighborhoods across the country, including those that have historically lacked access,” said Kate Van Waes, Executive Director of the American Hiking Society. “The House of Representatives must quickly take up and pass this legislation and send it to the president to be signed into law.”

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