U.S. Senate approves Great American Outdoors Act—time for House to act

By Ramona du Houx

On June 17, 2020 the United States Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass legislation to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and invest in critical repair needs within national parks and other public lands with the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). The measure now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote, where it is expected to pass with the support of a bipartisan majority.

The GAOA passed the Senate by a vote of 73-25.

“As veterans who are lawmakers, protecting our public lands is part of defending our country. We fought to ensure every American enjoys their inherited right to public land access,” said Alex Cornell du Houx, a former Maine state lawmaker, Marine combat veteran, and President of Elected Officials to Protect America. “We are elated to see the Great American Outdoors Act pass the Senate, creating increased prosperity, health, and the freedom to enjoy our nation’s national treasures for generations.”

The legislation will provide permanent and full funding – $900 million annually – for the LWCF without being subject to federal appropriations. This builds on the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which permanently authorizes the LWCF and was signed into law in 2019. Elected Officials to Protect America took action to ensure that law’s passage.

EOPA state lawmakers who are veterans dedicated to protecting America’s public lands traveled to Washington D.C. in the fall of 2018 and met with Senators and Members of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill. Previously, Protect America’s Public Lands organized 80 bipartisan lawmakers who are veterans from all 50 states, to sign a letter to then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reauthorize LWCF.

EOPA Military Veteran State Representatives, and Senators who flew into Washington D.C. and met Congressional members and made their case for full LWCF. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“Our public lands are national treasures owned equally by every American. They are a great unifier – a distinctly American legacy. John Muir called them ‘places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.’ Protecting them for future generations is our sacred obligation,” said Oregon State Representative Paul Evans, EOPA Co-Chair. “I am honored to have gone to Washington with other state lawmakers who are veterans to defend the LWCF. Eighty of us signed a bipartisan letter to the Interior Secretary to release funding and permanently authorize LWCF.”

A short time after the EOPA visit the legislation moved out of committee, where it had been stalled.

“Veterans understand the importance of our natural places that give solace to millions. They are a part of our cultural heritage, without them we wouldn’t be the nation we are,” said New Mexico State Representative Debra Maria Sarinana, EOPA Co-Chair. “I’m glad our delegation had the opportunity to meet with our US. Senators and Representatives to progress the mission. Now it’s time for the U.S. House to finish the job.”

LWCF is funded using a small portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas royalty payments. Outdoor recreation, conservation and historic preservation activities contribute more than $887 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supporting 7.6 million jobs.

The National Park System is over 100 years old and its infrastructure is aging and deteriorating. The GAOA includes the Restore Our Parks Act, legislation introduced by U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) to address the existing $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks. Senator King met with EOPA members during their 2018 visit to Capitol Hill and was supportive.

“The Great American Outdoors Act is monumental legislation that will preserve these lands for future Americans,” said Senator King, the Ranking Member of the Senate National Parks Subcommittee. “The overwhelmingly bipartisan vote showed just how much this issue transcends politics – because a sunrise from Cadillac Mountain inspires the same awe in everyone, no matter how you vote in November.”

Providing consistent annual funding to maintain parks and public lands is a smart investment. Park visitor spending contributes over $20 billion to local communities and generates over 326,000 jobs each year. One recent study by the National Parks Service (NPS) showed that addressing maintenance needs has the potential to create or support an additional 100,100 jobs.

In Maine National and parks would benefit.

 “Acadia and all who enjoy it will benefit greatly from this historic legislation. Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in the Senate is a major step toward preserving and protecting the places that mean so much to us as a nation,” said David MacDonald, President & CEO of Friends of Acadia. “The Act would dramatically boost funding available for maintenance of existing assets in parks, such as trails, roads, bridges and water systems; as well as ensuring support for the Land & Water Conservation Fund, which has been essential to land protection efforts at Acadia and in communities throughout Maine.”

The legislative package would be among the most impactful conservation laws enacted in the last century.

Members of the Elected Officials to Protect America’s Lands met with Sen. Rob Wyden, and other U.S. Senators, on Sept 6th on Capitol Hill to urge the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Sen Wyden, and all the Congressional members they met met with are supportive of the LWCF becoming fully funded. From left to right in the back: State Sen. Rick Kolowski (NE), Asm. Felix Ortiz (NY) US Senator Rob Wyden, State Rep. Paul Evans, Former State Rep. Alexander Cornell du Houx, (ME) Delegate Pat Young (MD). In the front: State Rep. Debbie Sarinana,(NM) and Rep. Michael Sheehy (OH). Photo by Ramona du Houx.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is America’s landmark conservation program, responsible for protecting parks, wildlife refuges and recreation areas at the federal, state and local level. It has provided critical funding for land and water conservation projects, recreational construction and the continued historic preservation of our nation’s iconic landmarks from coast-to-coast since 1964 but the funding had to be authorized by Congress. GAOA stops that process by ensuring unabated funding.