One of my favorite photographs of the Rio Grande as it winds its way through Big Bend National Park.
After composing yesterday’s post and commenting on the lack of adequate funding for the NPS, I feel the need to react to an article I read this morning concerning the passing of the Great American Outdoors Act. I was aware that this proposal was working its way through Congress but I did not realize it had actually been passed into law with bi-partisan support on August 5, 2020.
I decided to dig deeper and comment on the ramifications this bill creates for the park service and all of our public lands. On the surface, it appears to be an important piece of legislation that will provide on-going support for our national public lands.
The act establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. The purpose of this fund is to address the backlog of deferred maintenance projects that have been piling up and added to each year on our public lands. It provides for approximately 1.5 billion dollars each year for the next 5 years to be allocated to parks in support of these projects. The bill also permanently secures 900 million dollars annually to the coffers of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Much of this funding is currently and will continue to be generated via energy development revenues from initiatives on our public lands. As the senate bill states, “For FY2021-FY2025, there shall be deposited into the fund an amount equal to 50% of all federal revenues from the development of oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy on federal lands and waters. Deposited amounts must not exceed $1.9 billion for any fiscal year.”
According to the bill, the breakdown in funding is as follows: 70% of funds will go to the National Park Service, 15% of funds to the US Forest Service and 5% of the funds to each of the following agencies – US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education.
In addition, there are restrictions on what projects can be funded and how the monies are divided up. Sixty-five percent of the funding must go to non-transportation projects and none of the money can be used for regularly occurring annual maintenance operations.
I certainly believe this is a step in the right direction. Reaction to the passage of this law has been mixed. While some are calling this the greatest piece of conservation legislation to be passed in decades, others are positing an alternative, more cautious, viewpoint.
I read an interesting piece published in The Harvard Gazette that shares an interview with Linda Bilmes. According to the article, her background includes serving on the “National Parks Second Century Commission and on the U.S. Department of Interior National Parks Advisory Committee from 2011 to 2017.” She also co-authored “Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs: America’s Best Investment” and is a leading expert on how the National Park Service budgeting process works.
She makes a case that this funding is seriously needed and welcomed. She also admits that it is not, however, a panacea. The funding process within the park service is complicated. It’s a government organization after all! Parks derive their funding from multiple sources – user fees, private non-profit organizations, and donations. In her opinion, more is needed to reform these other revenue streams if the parks are to remain stable. She states that the public actually supports funding 30 times more than this bill allows, which is what is actually needed. The backlog of maintenance projects has a price tag of well over 12 billion dollars – more than double what is being allocated by the GAO Act. And, this number increases every year.
Bilme is not the only person who suggests that this act does not go far enough. Margaret Wells, a senior fellow with Resources for the Future, agrees that this funding is inadequate. She states in an interview with The National Parks Traveler that “This is a Band-Aid. It’s fine, it’s good to get some money, an infusion of cash, to solve some of these problems, that’s great, but it doesn’t really address the long-term problem, which, as you said, the deficit grows every year and they continue to add to this list of projects that need to be done. Unless you have a better ongoing funding situation for the parks, you’re still going to run into this problem over time.”
John Garder, the senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Park Conservation Association commented, “The Great Americans Outdoors Act will be a huge success for repairing our national parks and other public lands. But it is not a be-all, end-all solution to the challenge of parks keeping up with needed repairs.”
It’s interesting to note the paradox of this type of legislation being passed at this time – with an administration that has worked tirelessly to undermine our parks over the past 4 years. According to Bilme, during this administration the following has occurred. I quote her from the article:
“The Trump administration has undermined public land protection more than any in my lifetime. It slashed Bear Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent, reduced Grand Staircase Escalante by 50 percent, removed protection for millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat in Western states, opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and most of the U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, reduced protections for wetlands, and weakened the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this year, Trump proposed cutting discretionary spending on the Land and Water Conservation Fund by 97 percent. As recently as last month, the president held a huge event at Mount Rushmore, refusing to honor the park superintendent’s request to cancel it due to high fire risk at the adjacent forest — a ban has been in place for a decade.”
So, why the bipartisan support? I guess we should thank the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis for this turn-around. And, the fact that it is an election year. As people flock to parks during the pandemic, there has been an increasing awareness and support for our public lands. This has been acknowledged by many Republicans up for re-election and the bill has gained traction this year as a result. Interesting to note that this bill was originally introduced by the late Rep. John Lewis in March of 2019. It was re-introduced in March of 2020 by Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado who is up for re-election this year against a formidable democratic opponent. The same scenario exists in the state of Montana with Senator Steve Daines. Bilme posits that the only reason Trump signed this legislation was to aid those senators in their bid to retain their senate seats, especially since he “had rejected previous efforts to fund the LWCF.”
I’m happy the Great American Outdoors Act has been signed into law, whatever the motivation. As others have stated, it will provide some much needed money to chip away at all these long-standing maintenance issues in our parks. It will also provide some 100,000 plus jobs – replacing at least some that were lost as a result of the pandemic. Let’s be clear. We still need to be vigilant and continue to find ways to provide on-going, adequate funding for our public lands. For now, let’s be thankful for what will be a start towards improving our park infrastructure.