A new bill funding maintenance and improvement projects for public lands is gaining steam in the U.S. Senate.
The Great American Outdoors Act would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a trust set up by the U.S. government to pay for park maintenance projects, and establish a consistent source of revenue for park conservation that would reduce years of maintenance backlog throughout public lands.
The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., passed on an 80-17 vote Monday, allowing it to proceed to floor debate in the Senate.
“This is a historic opportunity for us, in a bipartisan fashion, to pass the most significant conservation measure in over 50 years,” Gardner said.
More than 800 conservation and outdoor recreation groups have signed on to a letter published in March supporting the bill, arguing that it was a permanent fix to a long-neglected issue. The Outdoor Alliance, one of the nonprofit organizations that signed the letter, pushed to expand the legislation to include the Bureau of Land Management and other public agencies in addition to the National Park Service.
“This is definitely the biggest investment in parks and public lands that we’ve seen in years, in decades,” said Tania Lown-Hecht, spokeswoman for the Outdoor Alliance. “This is not to be underestimated.”
If passed, the bill would mandate $1.9 billion in money raised from offshore oil and gas leases, and other energy projects would go toward outdoor maintenance and recreation projects through 2025. It would also fully fund the about $900 million budget of the LWCF, with the money split between the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education, with the bulk of the money going to national parks.
Lown-Hecht and others have been making the pitch that conservation spending is a strong job creator: One study found that every $1 million spent on the LWCF could support between 16.8 and 30.8 jobs.
“It will put people to work in public lands, and that’s an investment that will bring back more than a dollar for every dollar spent,” Lown-Hecht said.
The LWCF was created in 1964 and was based on the idea that the depletion of one natural resource, offshore oil and gas, should be offset by the care of other natural resources protected as parks.
Since that time, however, Congress has often failed to appropriate the full amount of money that the fund could have received each year, creating a logjam of maintenance projects in national parks across the country that have totaled to more than $30 billion in deferred maintenance, according to the fund’s own account.
The bill gained momentum after Sens. Gardner and Steve Daines, R-Mont., visited the White House in March to convince President Donald Trump to support the bill. Since then, the bill has earned the attention of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as other Republican senators eager to support a bipartisan bill during an election year.
Gardner also noted that the timing of the bill is especially prescient as rural communities in Southwest Colorado and elsewhere have been hard hit by a drop in tourism and job losses during the pandemic. Advocates agree, arguing park projects could be part of a broader plan for recovery.
“We see this as a way to not only address the maintenance backlog on these lands but to put jobs on the ground for people where they’ve lost them,” said Tom Cors, policy director for The Nature Conservancy.
The Senate will continue to debate the bill throughout the week. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has also announced his support of the bill. If it passes, the House of Representatives will then have the option to vote on an identical companion bill introduced last week.
Cors is cautiously optimistic about the bill’s chances, saying it is a conservation win 55 years in the making.
“We’ve been working on this for years and years and this is the holy grail of the conservation community,” Cors said. “We’re ecstatic that this is happening”
Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.