With the stroke of President Donald Trump’s pen, the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation became law Tuesday morning, prompting widespread praise on a measure that sets a new standard of stewardship for public lands.
The bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), authorizes billions in funding for two major conservation needs — the National Park Service deferred maintenance backlog and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The House approved the bill 310-107 on July 22, weeks after it won overwhelming approval in the Senate, and as it headed to the White House President Trump was expected to sign the bill into law during a ceremony Tuesday morning.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, one of the bill’s architects, joined Trump in the White House Aug. 4 to mint the legislation, while U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, has been a tireless advocate for similar measures through the years.
“This is a great day for Montana, this is a great day for America and this is a great day for conservation and for all of us who love the great outdoors,” Daines said in a statement Tuesday. “The Great American Outdoors Act is a big win for conservation, it’s a big win for jobs, it’s a big win for our Montana way of life, it’s a big win for bipartisanship. It’s only fitting it took public lands to bring a divided government together.”
The legislation has two main impacts. First, it establishes a National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund that will provide up to $9 billion over the next five years to fix deferred maintenance at national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, and other federal lands, with $6.5 billion earmarked specifically to the 419 national park units.
The funding is needed badly, park advocates say. The number of visitors to the national parks system has increased by 50 percent since 1980, but the parks’ budget has plateaued. The imbalance has led to a $12 billion backlog of maintenance to repair roads, trails, campgrounds, monuments, fire safety, utilities, and visitor infrastructure — which will finally be addressed.
Second, the GAOA guarantees $900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a flagship conservation program paid for by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. The LWCF was established in 1964 with an authorization level of $900 million, but in most years Congress has appropriated less than half of this amount. The LWCF is especially important because it helps fund the four main federal land programs (National Parks, National Forests, Fish and Wildlife, and Bureau of Land Management) and provides grants to state and local governments to acquire land for recreation and conservation.
According to Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, the GAOA is the kind of public land legislation that will be seen as a pivotal investment for generations to come.
“You cannot overstate the importance of this bill and what it will mean for national parks, public lands and communities across the country. This is the largest investment our country has made in our national parks and public lands in more than 50 years, and it comes not a moment too soon,” Pierno said. “With this passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, our parks’ crumbling roads, decaying buildings and outdated water systems will be fixed, more than 100,000 people will have much-needed jobs, and every American, no matter where they live, will have more access to outdoor spaces. This bill is a conservationist’s dream.”
The legislation includes components from two previous bills, the Restore Our Parks Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, both of which enjoyed bipartisan support. The GAOA wrapped them into one package and, viewed through the lens of election-year politics, has been billed as a means for Republicans to curry favor among voters in states like Montana, where the outdoor economy and tourism at sites such as Glacier and Yellowstone national parks play an outsize role.
The Restore Our Parks Act dedicates $1.3 billion per year for five years to deferred maintenance projects in the National Park Service’s nearly $12 billion backlog of needed repair work. Park roads and facilities have been deteriorating for decades, and federal funding has been insufficient to meet the system’s mounting needs. This money would help address the highest-priority infrastructure repair needs, including visitor centers, trails, roads, bridges, water and electrical systems, and more.
The Great American Outdoors Act also dedicates $3 billion to the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education infrastructure projects to address necessary repairs throughout our U.S. public lands system.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act will dedicate $900 million annually to conserve parks and public lands. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the country’s most important tools for preserving the integrity of our national parks. Agencies such as the Park Service have used the funds to purchase vulnerable lands within park borders from willing sellers, protecting these parcels from incompatible residential and commercial development.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney commended members of Congress and President Trump for championing the bill, while crediting grassroots sportsmen and women for their unrelenting advocacy in fighting for its passage.
“Today we unite in celebration of our public lands and waters,” Tawney said in a statement. “Success has many fathers and mothers, and without the dedicated, unwavering support of so many – ranging from rank-and-file hunters and anglers, outdoor recreationists and business owners to members of Congress and the President – we would never have achieved this hard-won victory.”