The Biggest Change to Public Lands in Our Lifetime

The Biggest Change to Public Lands in Our Lifetime

MeatEater’s conservation director and host of the Cal’s Week in Review Podcast, Ryan Callaghan, is feeling optimistic today. When Congress reconvenes next month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he will bring the Great American Outdoors Act to the floor for debate and likely a vote. Cal calls the GAOA, “the largest outdoor package we will likely see in our lifetime.” The legislative package allocates $9.5 billion over five years, all revenue from oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, to address the massive maintenance backlog on public lands. It also guarantees full and permanent funding for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually. The bill opens no new lands or waters to oil and gas exploration; all funds will accrue from existing royalties on existing public leases.

Cal’s not the only one smiling; this news was met by cheers from the conservation community and supporters of public access nationwide. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1964 to spend royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling on access to, and enjoyment of, the outdoors for all Americans. Those funds have helped pay for more than 40,000 projects in nearly every county across the country. From public land easements, to access roads, to municipal baseball diamonds—the LWCF has helped pay for the outdoor recreation that we all enjoy. And it’s accomplished all that without having full support for the vast majority of its existence. The fund accrues up to $900 million annually, but that entire amount has only been appropriated twice—typically more than half gets siphoned off for other purposes. Imagine what the LWCF will be able to pull off with guaranteed funding. This new bill will ensure that all of the money goes into conserving and improving land and water resources every year, but it goes even further.

The National Park Service has accumulated some $12 billion-worth of deferred maintenance projects, from pot-holed roads to decrepit visitor centers to public restrooms in disrepair. This act would provide $1.3 billion annually until 2025 to address these problems. It would also provide $285 million every year to the U.S. Forest Service for the same kinds of issues, as well as $95 million each to the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Americans of all stripes are eager to see thousands of jobs created by this influx of infrastructure funding. With the unemployment rate currently at its highest point since the Great Depression, many people hope to see this bill create a new Civil Conservation Corps of sorts, putting Americans to work fixing and improving our public resources.

“This is the kind of big, bold conservation action that is usually associated with Teddy Roosevelt,” Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, one of the bill’s sponsors, told MeatEater. “I like to think that he is smiling down on us for working together to make this happen.”

The package currently has 59 co-sponsors in the Senate, one short of a rare supermajority that could prevent floor debate and a possible filibuster from anti-public land factions led by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

This legislation was introduced on March 9 in the wake of President Trump’s tweet promoting the idea and in support of two Republican Senate co-sponsors of the bill up for re-election, Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana. Some see political theater at play here, but many others don’t care.

“One thing that has been allowed, a constant through the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, has been the right to go outside,” Sen. Heinrich said. “Americans have re-found their connection to the outdoors, for exercise, and mental health. Right now is the obvious time to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.”

“This is a big damn deal,” he said.

Ryan Callaghan emphasizes the vast importance of this legislation for hunters and anglers. More funding means better facilities, better enforcement, more boat launches and trailheads, and more woods and water for sportsmen and women to explore.

“I am excited for two reasons,” Callaghan said. “One, it is extremely rare to see this much bipartisan support for our public lands in full view of the public. Two, with the almost $10 billion in dedicated to maintenance in this package it will give a lot of Americans a chance to earn a paycheck while working outside, something that certainly helped shape my love of the outdoors. We need to get GAOA past the finish line. Call your Senator today and let them know how much public lands mean to you.”

Feature image via Captured Creative.

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