In a time when partisanship dominates United States politics, it was refreshing to see both parties come together to pass a piece of legislation being saluted as “historic” and “landmark” by conservation leaders around the nation.
The Great American Outdoors Act overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week on a bipartisan 310-107 vote. The Senate version passed in June on a 73-25 vote.
Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) co-sponsored the Senate version of the GAOA. The late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) sponsored the House bill.
Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine voted for passage. In the House of Representatives, Rob Wittman (R-1st) voted for the bill. All other Virginia congressional representatives voted for passage except for Ben Cline (R-6th) who voted “No,” and H. Morgan Griffith (R-9th) and Denver Riggleman (R-5th) who did not vote at all.
The bill awaits President Donald Trump’s signature, an action expected soon based on Trump’s tweet following the bill’s passage. It read, in part, “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”
Funding conservation-related challenges has been an issue on the table for several years. While this bill does not address who helps pay for conservation of wildlife species, it does address important problems faced on America’s public lands.
The legislation provides $9.5 billion over five years to pay down the National Park Service and other agencies’ maintenance backlogs and provides permanent funding at $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. National parks in Virginia have calculated more than $1 billion worth of deferred maintenance needs.
Deferred maintenance includes work such as repairs or maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems and other structures and facilities.
The bill establishes a National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund in the U.S. treasury. From fiscal years 2021-25, a dollar amount equal to 50% of all energy development revenues the nation derives from oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy development on federal land and water will be deposited in the fund. Deposits will be capped at $1.9 billion annually.
This money will pay for priority deferred maintenance projects in the Park Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System, on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Education schools, and in the National Forest System. The bill further specifies how much each beneficiary will be allocated. The Park Service gets 70%, the Forest Service 15 percent, and 5% each to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM, and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Conservation advocates and proponents of better access to public lands said the funds will enhance access for hunting and fishing across the country. One provision of the bill requires funds to be used consistent with the requirements for recreational public access for hunting, fishing, recreational shooting, or other outdoor recreational purposes.
The provision to permanently fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund was one of the more contentious parts of the bill.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, this fund was established by Congress in 1964 to “fulfill a bipartisan commitment to safeguard our natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. Using zero taxpayer dollars, the fund invests earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing to help strengthen communities, preserve our history and protect our national endowment of lands and waters.”
The LWCF Act authorized annual funding of $900 million, but Congress usually appropriates only a portion of this amount. “Congress has appropriated full funding to support conservation and recreation projects only once in the Fund’s 50-year history–diverting the remainder for other purposes,” reads a statement on the DOI website.
Opponents of the GAOA were not keen on setting up a perpetual funding stream. Some, like Congressman Ken Buck (R-Colo.), likened it to mandatory funding for things like Medicare and Social Security and worried that perpetual funding would lead to continued program growth.
Before the final vote in the House, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), took to the floor to state, “For too long we have allowed our national parks to fall into disrepair.”
In a release following the vote, Wittman, an avid hunter and angler, stated he was proud to support the legislation and believes “preserving our natural resources for future generations is one of the most important things we can do as good stewards of our Earth and our beautiful Commonwealth.”
Wittman cited the increased importance of outdoor recreation during this period of COVID-19 and voiced expectation that some funding will go towards conservation along the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.
Conservation organization chiefs also were quick to issue statements praising the legislation.
Congressional Sportsman Foundation president Jeff Crane called it “a historic victory for sportsmen and women.”