Great American Outdoors Act Summary

Across the Aisle—Washington agrees on historic funding for conservation

By: Morgan Graham 

As we approach election day, bipartisanship seems like an invertebrate on the endangered species list—obscure and rare.

To juxtapose, let’s take the opportunity to highlight the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), a law that addresses mounting maintenance costs of federal land and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Late civil rights luminary Representative John Lewis introduced the original bill as the Taxpayer First Act in 2019, but the bill underwent substantial revisions over the following year and a half. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on August 4th, 2020.

Existing funding is not sufficient to meet the mounting cost of conservation in the United States. The GAOA helps to cover conservation funding gaps via two mechanisms: the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund (NPPLLRF) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Under the NPPLLRF, 50% of all federal tax revenue from oil, gas, coal, or alternative energy developments on federal land or water over the next 5 years will be deposited into a fund, up to a maximum of $1.9 billion annually. From this fund, 70% will be allocated to the National Park Service, 15% to the U.S. Forest Service, and the remaining 15% split equally amongst the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education. Nearly $20 billion are necessary to address maintenance backlogs on federal lands, and NPPLLRF will help with this backlog. Projects will prioritize improved accessibility for persons with disabilities. At least 65% of funding within each agency will support maintenance on docks, restrooms, campground, and trails projects, and remaining funds may support paved/unpaved roads, bridges, tunnels, and paved parking. After 5 years, the General Accounting Office will conduct a study to examine the efficacy of the NPPLRF.

The GAOA also permanently funds the LWCF, a law that has previously required funds to be allocated on an annual basis. The LWCF was established in 1964 and is primarily financed by royalties on offshore drilling, with a small percentage generated from the sale of federal lands and taxes on boat fuel. Since its inception, nearly $20 billion have been allocated to federal, state, and local governments to improve access to recreation and protect natural resources. The LWCF was reauthorized—but not funded—in 2019, reducing a substantial pool of funding opportunities for many governmental agencies. However, with the passage of the GAOA, the LWCF has secured $900 million per year. In Wyoming, the vast majority of LWCF grants have helped establish or redevelop community recreational amenities such as parks, golf courses, ball fields, shooting ranges, rodeo grounds, and ski lifts. Notable habitat conservation projects supported by LWCF include the Bear River Watershed Conservation Area, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Fossil Butte National Monument, and the North Platte River Special Recreation Management Area.

Despite broad bipartisan support, the Wyoming Congressional delegation unanimously opposed the legislation. Senator Mike Enzi asserted the act contributed to the national debt and failed to account for the federal maintenance costs beyond five years. Senator John Barrasso expressed support for the LWCF and its positive impact on communities throughout Wyoming, but he did not support the bill over concerns about long-term maintenance funding and the federal government continuing to bite off more than it can chew. Representative Liz Cheney expressed dismay that taxpayer dollars would support the conversion of private land to public without a viable plan for funding the existing maintenance bill.

Most media outlets have considered the GAOA the biggest win for conservation in a generation. It passed the House and Senate with unusual bipartisan support, with 310 of 435 Representatives and 73 of 100 Senators supporting the bill. With 92% of federal lands occurring in 12 western states, politicians effectively lobbied for its passage as an economic stimulus for economies of the Mountain West. With the exponential increase in outdoor recreation, reliable funding for public land infrastructure is a priority. Here’s hoping this uncommonly popular piece of legislation can help.