One of the most monumental and far-reaching conservation bills in half a century was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Tuesday. The Great American Outdoors Act will provide billions of dollars in funds to national parks and public lands both for immediate relief of maintenance projects and for ongoing conservation and preservation work.
Most notably, the measure will dedicate $9.5 billion over the next five years to address the backlog of maintenance projects both in our national parks and on other public lands. These spaces always require constant upkeep, but over the past decade, the National Park System (NPS) and other Department of the Interior agencies have experienced chronic defunding while simultaneously dealing with an increasing number of natural disasters (such as the landslides at Big Sur and worsening wildfires across the western United States) and record numbers of visitors, all of which have put further stress on their aging infrastructure.
About $6.5 billion of the bill’s new fund will be spent in the 419 national park sites—the NPS currently has a $12 billion maintenance backlog—to repair damaged and worn-out roads, restrooms, trails, and campgrounds, and other areas that have fallen into disrepair. The remaining money will be split between the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education schools for similar projects.
The Great American Outdoors Act would also guarantee that the $900 million that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) receives annually be spent on parks. The LWCF helps preserve and create public land areas across the country and, since its founding in 1964, has been responsible for protecting 7 million acres of land, helping complete the Appalachian Trail, buying out mining claims in Denali, and expanding public lands along the Big Sur coast. It has funded projects in every single county in the nation. Congress often shifts money from the LWCF to other priorities; the new measure would prevent such a practice.
The widespread support of this bill may come as a surprise to many. Over the past three years, the Trump administration has worked to roll back 100 major climate and environmental policies and has consistently diverted money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund; the administration’s proposed budget for 2021 recommended slashing over 97 percent of the fund, leaving only $15 million.
However, the bipartisan effort is not completely unprecedented when it comes to environmental conservation. Last year, the Natural Resources Management Act, which created six new National Park Service units and protected 1.3 million acres of wilderness, passed the Senate by a vote of 92 to 8. And as the coronavirus pandemic has limited our ability to travel outside the country, government officials and agencies have recognized that people are turning to the great outdoors more and more, both to scratch the travel itch and to improve their mental and physical health.
“Data is showing conclusively that Americans are much more comfortable traveling by car and recreating outdoors as we continue to cope with the pandemic,” said U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow in a statement, adding that national parks will be very important leisure travel destinations for the foreseeable future.
But more importantly, the Great American Outdoors Act reaches across the Congressional aisle because it has economic benefits as well as environmental ones. Supporters positioned it as being both a stimulus and a conservation package. The communities that surround many parks and public lands are dependent on their tourism and outdoor recreation industries and so have seen high unemployment rates during the coronavirus pandemic. A 2018 analysis by the Pew Research Center suggests that if the National Park Service’s $12 million backlog were to be addressed, it would create 100,000 jobs. And that’s to say nothing about the jobs and economic opportunities that extra funding could provide for the other DOI agencies.
What’s more, none of the funds comes from taxpayer pockets. Every dollar that the Great American Conservation Act provides is from royalties on offshore drilling, gas, coal, and renewable energy production already being paid into the federal treasury.
It’s a rare instance of agreement on what is a truly landmark decision. In a statement, National Parks Conservation Association president and CEO Teresa Pierno said, “The overwhelming bipartisan support for this bill demonstrates the value and power our national parks have to bring people together.”
This article originally appeared online on June 22, 2020 and has been updated to include current information.
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Maggie Fuller Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.