A Landmark Law for Public Lands and Parks

The Great American Outdoors Act permanently funds land and water conservation.

By Lisa Owens Viani

Congress puts permanent cash behind the Land and Water Conservation Fund and improvements to national parks. C-SPAN screen capture by LAM.

On July 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Great American Outdoors Act, a milestone law to lock in permanent federal funding for public lands and parks. President Trump signed the measure August 4, having been persuaded several months ago to support it by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is up for re-election this year. On the day the House passed the Senate’s version of the bill, approved in June, by a vote of 310 to 107, the president said on Twitter: “We must protect our National Parks for our children and grandchildren. I am calling on the House to pass the GREAT AMERICAN OUTDOORS ACT today. Thanks @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines for all your work on this HISTORIC BILL!”

In 1964, back in the days of broader bipartisanship than it currently manages, Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), with the goal of safeguarding the country’s natural resources by using revenues from offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction activities. Every year, $900 million was supposed to pour into the fund to protect national parks and forests, waterways, and wildlife refuges, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects. But since its inception, the fund has expired twice and has had to be reauthorized repeatedly. It has never been fully funded, with the exception of two years during the Clinton administration. “It was considered a win to get even half of it,” says Daniel Hart, ASLA’s federal government affairs manager.

In 2019, the LWCF finally received permanent reauthorization, giving resource managers and community planners cause for celebration. But the reauthorization did not include a permanent cash flow, meaning that funding would continue to be a challenge as it would depend on repeating rounds of appropriations, which were not always assured. Now the Great American Outdoors Act has remedied the problem by permanently funding the LWCF.

The Great American Outdoors Act is an amalgam of the LWCF Permanent Funding Act and the Restore Our Parks Act, which, popular with conservatives, was added to the bill to help it move, Hart says. Besides permanently funding the LWCF at $900 million annually, the new law creates a five-year trust fund, called the National Parks Public Lands Legacy Fund, to address $12 billion in backlogged maintenance projects at national parks and on public lands (see “Roads to Ruin,” LAM, February 2016). The National Park Service is the prime beneficiary of the legacy fund, though other federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education, will also benefit.

Since the LWCF began, landscape architects have relied on it for projects such as improvements to visitor centers, trails, boating and fishing access, and a multitude of other projects, says Curtis LaPierre, ASLA, a principal with Otak, Inc. in Seattle. The firm is currently working on improvements to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

“Some of the work we do is new additions, but by far and away most of our work is maintenance—right now, we’re in the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, and Yellowstone, redoing trails and overlooks. These parks were built a long time ago and don’t meet accessibility standards or are not as safe as they should be,” LaPierre says. “It doesn’t sound very appealing, but a lot of it is upgrades that require a lot of thought and design savvy.”

Robert Loftis, ASLA, a principal with MRWM Landscape Architects in Albuquerque, says the Outdoors Act will be groundbreaking. “[It will] support ideals that landscape architects hold dear—access to nature, healthy communities, conservation of natural resources, and protection of cultural landscapes,” he says. Loftis, who practices in New Mexico, says that past underfunding of the LWCF has caused economic impacts in his state. “There’s a trickle-down effect on local budgets, so it’s exciting to see the backlog being addressed.” He says these federal dollars are crucial for creating and maintaining community parks in rural and disadvantaged communities. “These dollars go to infrastructure where there’s no money for quality of life improvements. It really is critical.”

Adam Supplee, ASLA, a landscape architect with Traffic Planning and Design, Inc. in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, says he looks forward to a more secure source of funding. “This legislation will make it a reliable resource,” he says. “Projects take a long time to develop, and if you need to count on funding, it may or may not be there. Permanent reauthorization can help us plan and track larger projects.”

Hart says a major benefit of the Outdoors Act is that it bypasses the appropriations process from here on out and prevents Congress from raiding it for other purposes as it has done in the past. Although passage of the bill is considered a victory for two vulnerable Senate Republicans, Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, who led Republican support for the legislation, some conservative lawmakers opposed it. On June 18, Representatives Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), Rob Bishop (R-Utah), and 19 other members sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to oppose the bill on procedural grounds and claim that because the federal government already owns much public land in the West, any additional land purchases will put additional strain on “essential services, like education, ambulatory services, and road maintenance.”

What many people may not realize about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Hart says, is that about half of state and local parks are funded through it by using federal matching dollars. With so many Americans suffering from cabin fever right now, those open spaces and recreational areas will become increasingly popular and important—and more will be needed, as social distancing requirements stay in place for the indefinite future. “A lot of community swimming pools in the rural West were built and rehabbed with the LWCF,” Hart says. “This is the only federal conservation program that funds local in-community parks and recreation centers. A lot of landscape architects are in charge of designing those.”

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