By Georgie Lellman
Despite the odds, an innovative new bill hailed as the greatest piece of land conservation legislation in decades became law this summer. The bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, sponsored by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, received support from 59 senators and passed on June 17. It was a rare moment of bipartisanship in today’s political climate, making the August 4 signing of the law even more monumental.
But what exactly does the Great American Outdoors Act actually accomplish?
The act has two primary goals. Its long-term objective is to provide permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which funds public lands. The LWCF was created in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but has only been funded by Congress in its full amount of $900 million per year twice since its creation. In the past, the funds have instead been used for unrelated projects. The Great American Outdoors Act ensures that the funds, from this point forward will be allocated annually to the LWCF to conserve and protect public lands across the nation.
These new permanent funds will increase funding for the U.S. Forest Service by $285 million annually, and by $95 million annually for both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Together, these organizations encompass over 588 million acres of land, that's approximately five times the size of the entire state of California.
And, while public lands should see extraordinary benefits from the Great American Outdoors Act, it will also provide advantages for communities across the nation. According to economists, every dollar invested by the Land and Water Conservation Fund generates a $4 return in their communities, boosting the economies in localities closely connected with public lands.
The secondary aim of the legislation stipulates that $9.5 billion be set aside over the course of the next five years in the Public Lands Restoration Legacy Fund to address previously neglected maintenance issues that affect many national and state parks. According to the American Hiking Society, “There is a nearly $12 billion backlog of maintenance projects across our public lands. When annual maintenance needs go unaddressed, long-term problems arise, seriously hampering the public’s access to outdoor recreation.” This backlog has been created by an increase in visitors to public lands by over 50% since 1980 and a parks budget that has remained relatively unchanged.
Of the money placed in the Public Lands Restoration Legacy Fund, $6.5 billion is specifically intended to be used across the national park system, while the remaining funds will aid wildlife refuges, forests, and other public lands. Interestingly, the $1.9 billion provided annually will be generated from oil and gas drilling revenues on the Outer Continental Shelf, submerged land along the east and west coasts of the U.S. as well as the Gulf of Mexico. This allows the American people to see a return for energy development and resources taken from their public land. The passing of the Great American Outdoors Act is a sign of hope that the challenges that the American people face in pursuing outdoor recreation opportunities at national and state parks will now be addressed through this influx of funds, which have been absent for decades.
The Great American Outdoors Act deserves praise as it will help to ensure the continued beauty of our natural spaces and that public lands remain accessible for generations to come.
Georgie Lellman is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and an intern for Turnstone Strategies. She is interested in environmental law and passionate about wildlife issues.
The Wilderness Society. 2020. “Land and Water Conservation Fund fully funded after decades of uncertainty."
Harsha, Dan. 2020. “The biggest land conservation legislation in a generation”. The Harvard Gazette.
Leasca, Stacey. 2020. “The Great American Outdoors Act Could Give Billions of Dollars to National Parks — Here’s What You Need to Know”. Travel + Leisure.
The blog is a space for stories of the natural world and the occasional post about communications and strategy.