By W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. and L. Preston Bryant Jr.
In this summer of political discontent, an extraordinary thing happened when Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, which some have billed as the most important environmental legislation in generations.
The act will provide billions of dollars to our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, and in historic Virginia, where such federal recreation lands number in the millions of acres and draw millions of visitors, that is big news for conservation, tourism and jobs.
What has been less fully appreciated, however, is that Virginia’s own Sen. Mark Warner laid the groundwork for the act three years ago when he introduced the National Park Service Legacy Act.
It was this bill that first proposed significant funds to eliminate the National Park Service’s billions of dollars in backlogged infrastructure needs. When that proposal stalled, Warner, a Democrat, teamed up with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, and a handful of other senators from both sides of the aisle to introduce the Restore Our Parks Act, which garnered support from more than half of the Senate. That traction led to its eventual inclusion in a broader conservation package dubbed the Great American Outdoors Act.
The act does two important things. First, it provides $9.5 billion over five years to address decades of delayed maintenance to more than 5,500 miles of roads, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings in our national parks, as well as deliver infrastructure repairs at national forests and national wildlife refuges.
In Virginia alone, the maintenance needs in Shenandoah National Park, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and our many other national outdoor federal spaces exceed $1 billion.
Second, the act fully funds at $900 million annually the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was established in 1965 to provide close-to-home recreation opportunities by working with willing landowners to acquire and conserve open-space lands and waterways and to grant funds to states and communities for the creation of accessible parks and recreation areas.
The act has had broad constituency backing from the very beginning from more than 3,000 businesses, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organizations like The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Travel Association, as well as governors and local elected leaders across the country.
Clearing out decades of backlogged maintenance at national parks, forests and wildlife refuges is important. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created across the county — an estimated 10,000 jobs in Virginia alone — and important federal facilities will be improved for millions of visitors.
But it is LWCF’s permanent funding that will prove to be the act’s most significant impact to states and communities. Conserving important lands, protecting streams and rivers, and creating state and local parks will improve citizens’ quality of life, and boost local tourism and recreational economies for years to come.
Warner first began pushing funds to improve the nation’s open-space lands because Virginia’s historic national parks and forests had among the greatest needs to fill. It was Warner’s National Parks Legacy Act that first rang the alarm bell on the need to fix our parks, followed by his across-the-aisle work on the Restore Our Parks Act, which ultimately led to the Great American Outdoors Act.
When all is said and done, it might well be that Warner’s work over the past few years to improve, increase and protect America’s outdoor spaces that will count among his greatest public service accomplishments.
W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., and L. Preston Bryant,Jr., served as Virginia secretary of natural resources from 2002 to 2006 and 2006 to 2010, respectively.
Contact Murphy at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Bryant at: email@example.com