Upon reviewing the implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act at a Feb. 9 meeting, members of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on National Parks expressed concerns such as providing safe, affordable housing to national park staff as visitation increases.
The bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act (S.3422), passed in 2020, enacted two key provisions to benefit public lands: It created the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund, which earmarked $9.5 billion over five years to address deferred maintenance needs on public lands, and it guaranteed $900 million per year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund in perpetuity.
Shannon Estonez, assistant secretary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Christopher French, deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, both witnesses at the meeting, affirmed that GAOA funding has supported land stewardship practices to promote equitable outdoor access and the safeguarding of natural resources.
“The Great American Outdoors Act has been a game changer,” French said. “It is critical to fix our [U.S. national parks and forests] infrastructure, create more access to our public land and further conservation.”
Both the witnesses and subcommittee members noted that the land acquisition and maintenance funds provided under GAOA were paramount in addressing the boom in national park visitation seen in recent years. As visitation continues to rise, Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) Angus King (D-Maine) proposed that future funding address the need for local communities and park staff to have access to safe, affordable housing.
“I look forward to continuing to work with our national parks and Chairman King to find more solutions to the housing issues faced in parks as well as gateway communities,” Daines said.
Senators Daines and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who were instrumental in the 2020 passage of the act, raised additional concerns over lag time in carrying out GAOA-funded LWCF land acquisition.
“I’m really concerned about some of the bottlenecks in that process,” Heinrich said. “They are really testing the patience of very well-meaning sellers with a conservation ethic and ultimately may lead them to sell their properties to be developed as opposed to being conserved.”
Daines agreed with this critique, but expressed optimism that administrators would be able to restructure their protocols to expedite these bureaucratic processes, and maintained his support for future funding of the act.
“We need to continue to invest here to provide more access, work on the issues of crowding we’re seeing at the moment, and on fraying infrastructure,” Daines said. “This is how we protect our wonderful landscapes for years to come.”
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