The Great American Outdoors Act, Explained

Denali National Park

Earlier today, President Trump formally signed the Great American Outdoors Act (H.R. 1957) into law. 

This bill is being celebrated with great fanfare as a win for environmental conservation. Senator Cory Gardner, the legislation’s sponsor in the Senate, touted it as “the single greatest conservation achievement in generations.” The Outdoor Recreation Roundtable hails it as “…the single greatest piece of conservation and outdoor recreation legislation before Congress in decades.” Even the Western Energy Alliance supports the act. 

It’s clear the legislation has widespread support. But what does the Great American Outdoors Act really do? In short, it directs revenues from federal energy development to our public lands. This money is deposited into two funds: the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

The National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund

Overdue maintenance totals $20 billion across our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. The bill for the National Park Service alone is roughly triple the agency’s annual budget. More than 21,000 miles of park trails need repair. Historic buildings rot and campgrounds deteriorate. Seventy percent of park infrastructure is more than 60 years old.

Until now, Congress has done little to fill our enormous national pothole. The discretionary budget for parks increased just 1 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past decade, while 28 new units were added during that time. This “thinning of the blood” stretches limited resources across more units and more acres, diminishing quality and stressing capacity.

The National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund will directly fund deferred maintenance needs, an idea PERC has advocated for more than two decades, including in testimony at a congressional hearing on the topic in 2018. This dedicated fund will receive half of all revenues from oil, gas, coal, alternative, and renewable energy development on federal lands and waters not already obligated to other needs, up to $1.9 billion per year, over the next five years. In other words, half of the energy revenues that would normally go into the general treasury will instead be put into the Legacy Restoration Fund to pay for overdue maintenance needs. Additionally, public donations may be made to the fund. 

The potential $9.5 billion deposited into the fund over the next five years will help cover about half of the current deferred maintenance backlog. The money will be distributed to public land management agencies proportionally to the amount of backlog faced by each agency (70 percent for the National Park Service, 15 percent for the U.S. Forest Service, 5 percent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5 percent for the Bureau of Land Management, and 5 percent for the Bureau of Indian Education).

Importantly, the money from this fund can only be spent to address deferred maintenance needs. This is vital to prevent the “thinning of the blood” that occurs when land is acquired without addressing the subsequent increase in maintenance needs on that land. 

Moreover, though the majority of deferred maintenance needs on public lands are transportation related, at least 65 percent of money from the Legacy Restoration Fund must be spent on non-transportation projects, such as trail and facility repair. A significant reason for this restriction is that the U.S. Department of Transportation and congressional appropriations for transportation and infrastructure share responsibility for roads on public lands. 

Additionally, public land managers can request that money from the Legacy Restoration Fund be invested by the Secretary of the Treasury to create a sort of endowment fund to generate future returns. This innovative financial tool will provide a measure of flexibility to help address future maintenance needs. 

The fund will allow public land managers to free themselves from a political appropriations process that historically prioritized acquisition and other conspicuous projects over deferred maintenance needs.These land managers can start filling in their backlog holes with an assurance that they have funding to help tackle longer-term priority projects. The creation of the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund acknowledges that conservation is about caring for the lands we already own. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been one of the most popular public lands funds for more than 50 years. Since its inception in 1965, the program has purchased federal lands and funded recreation projects such as local parks in every county in the nation. 

Similar to the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, the LWCF is funded by energy royalties that would otherwise flow to the general treasury. The fund is authorized at up to $900 million per year, subject to the annual appropriations process. Historically, it has been used for three purposes: land acquisition by federal land management agencies for outdoor recreation, grants made to states for outdoor recreation purposes, and “other purposes,” which include special requests for funding made by presidents since 1998.

In 2019 the fund was permanently reauthorized, but it was still dependent on Congress to actually appropriate energy revenues into the fund annually. In other words, the bucket was set in place permanently, but Congress still had to put money into it each year. 

As part of that reauthorization, the terms of how LWCF money could be spent were solidified. At least 40 percent of the annually appropriated money must go to federal land acquisition. Similarly, at least 40 percent must be granted to states for recreation projects. The remainder can be appropriated at the discretion of Congress. 

Historically, Congress consistently appropriated much less than the $900 million maximum allowed under the LWCF. With the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, however, the full $900 million will be deposited into the LWCF annually as mandatory spending. This means that the program will spend at least $360 million on federal land acquisition each year into perpetuity. While acquiring inholdings and strategic access points are good value for the money, perpetual land acquisition raises aforementioned concerns about continuing to “thin the blood” of our public lands and exacerbating maintenance needs. 

What It Doesn’t Do

While the Great American Outdoor Act does some great things for public lands, we cannot consider our job as conservationists to be done. 

With this act, federal acquisition is funded forever, but maintenance is only funded for five years. Continuing to expand the federal estate without ensuring those lands will be properly maintained threatens to increase future deferred maintenance backlogs. We are going to need new and innovative approaches to ensure we don’t find ourselves reversing course and digging an even bigger hole than the one we’re only starting to fill in with the Legacy Restoration Fund. 

We also need a shift to focus on routine maintenance. After all, the routine maintenance needs that go unmet today become the deferred maintenance needs of tomorrow. While it is imperative that we address the looming deferred maintenance backlog, we cannot forget how we got here and work to prevent future backlogs. Approaches like allowing our public lands managers more freedom to work with and outsource routine needs to private partners will ensure maintenance needs are addressed while allowing limited public lands funds to be spent on other priorities. 

Finally, we have to acknowledge the paradox of relying on energy development for conservation funding. Political leaders, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, have pledged to halt new fossil fuel drilling on federal lands and waters, which would severely limit the funding available for the programs under the Great American Outdoors Act. A historical reliance on congressional appropriations is part of what got us into this problem in the first place, so we’re going to have to get creative with tapping other funding sources to take care of our public lands. Recreational fees already contribute a significant part of public lands funding, and there’s great potential to expand a modest and equitable fee structure than can to ensure we are protecting the places we so deeply value.  

For too long, the condition of “America’s best idea” has been an afterthought. While it might not solve all of our problems, the Great American Outdoors Act should be celebrated as an important step in restoring what’s great about the great outdoors. 

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