With a stroke of his pen, President Donald Trump handed the conservation community one of their greatest achievements in recent memory. The Great American Outdoors Act became law on Tuesday, August 4, ending a decade-long battle to reauthorize and fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“It’s a big win for bipartisanship. Perhaps it’s only fitting it took public lands to bring a divided government together,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who introduced the bill in the Senate in March. “Mr. President, Montana thanks you. America thanks you. And I thank you for signing the most important piece of conservation legislation in over 50 years for our great country.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is among America’s oldest and most highly regarded conservation programs. It was established by Congress in 1964 to reinvest royalties from offshore oil and gas development into public access and recreation. That money has gone into 40,000-some projects in every county in the country, from ball fields and bike paths to boat ramps and National Forest access easements. While it was initially authorized at $900 million a year—none of that from tax dollars—only twice in its 55-year history was that full amount appropriated. The LWCF sunset in 2015 before receiving temporary reauthorization, then permanent reauthorization with the John Dingell Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in 2019. Full and permanent funding was the final LWCF hurdle for conservationists and public lands lovers across the country.
This legislation also created the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund, which will contribute $9.5 billion over the next five years to fixing broken facilities and infrastructure on lands managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Education, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This money comes from royalties on all energy development on public lands, not just offshore oil and gas like the LWCF. The bill does not create or permit any new energy exploration outside of the normal permitting and leasing processes. It will address everything from potholed roads and washed out bridges to broken bathrooms, defaced signs, and other deferred maintenance that has accumulated to the tune of some $12 billion in recent years. More funding will likely be needed, but the conservation community sees this as a big step forward. Every investment from the LWCF and the new Legacy Restoration Fund will create jobs and places for people to enjoy socially-distanced recreation.
“The national headlines the GAOA generated as it moved through the Senate and House, with only a brief stop on President Trump’s desk, could potentially be more important than LWCF or GAOA itself,” MeatEater’s conservation director, Ryan Callaghan, said. “Americans care about the outdoors. Our public lands are showcased on political polls, and our lawmakers, as they should be, are listening. We have much more to do, but thank you to President Trump for his support, and thank you to all of the people who wrote in and called their elected officials, especially those who called for the first time.”