Great American Outdoors Act likely to pass Senate next week; how it will support high-priority ruffed grouse, brook trout restoration projects

WASHINGTON – On Thursday Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) met with members of the West Virginia press and others to discuss the next steps with the Great American Outdoors Act, his landmark legislation that will permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9.5 billion over five years to federal entities to address maintenance backlogs across the country. The GAOA was readily accepted by a supermajority of senators who voted 80-17 Monday to invoke cloture. The Senate is likely to pass the legislation early next week. 

“This is a great piece of legislation, we got 80 votes the other night which is unbelievable,” Manchin said. “We had 60 cosponsors, 44 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Everybody’s come together.” 

Additionally, the legislation has overwhelming support across the country. More than 850 conservation groups and six former Secretaries of the Interior have signed on to the bill as it is now. 

The LWCF was created in 1964 and was designed to use $900 million annually from offshore drilling and gas to protect public lands, water and cultural sites. West Virginia alone has been awarded approximately $246.2 million through the fund over the last 50 years. While this money has impacted every county in the nation to some degree, the LWCF has only been fully funded twice in its history. After being temporarily reauthorized in 2016 for three years as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the fund was allowed to sunset Sept. 30, 2018. Shortly after, however, a bipartisan effort led by Manchin put S. 47, the John D. Dingell, Jr., Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, on President Donald Trump’s desk in March 2019, which, once signed, permanently reauthorized the LWCF. 

Trump is expected to sign the GAOA into law as well, and while politics may be at play due to the general election just months away, Manchin and other cosponsors do not care. Their goal is to fund conservation efforts for generations to come. Regardless, some senators were not on board.

“We have a few of our senators from the west who are very upset and some people from the coastal states that are upset we couldn’t take care of everybody, but I’ve committed to them through the committee I’ll work with them to help bring about revenues from offshore wind – how it can help coastal restoration – and also the GOMESA [Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act]. We’re looking at taking the cap off that to where they’re able to prosper in that, too. 

“We’re trying all we can. That’s what’s holding it up. That’s why we haven’t already passed it.” 

While Manchin hears his colleagues’ concerns, his goal is to pass this legislation without amendments that will muddy up what he sees as a pristine bill.

(West Virginia Department of Commerce photo)

“Let me tell you why we’ve held the line on amendments,” he added. “This bill is such an important piece of legislation for all of us. People have been thinking about this and talking about this for 10, 20, 30 or more years. Almost every county in the United States benefits from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and also now with the money we’re putting into restoring our parks, it’s going to be unbelievable. You talk about economic recovery, we’ve never had economic recovery without some form of infrastructure spending. There’s no better infrastructure to be spent on than the great outdoors and the beautiful parks that we have. It’s going to create 120,000 to 140,000 jobs. There is so much good in it, and that’s why we’re all anxious and on board.” 

“This act really represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in West Virginia, the nation’s spectacular lands and waters and our economy,” said Beth Wheatley, Director of External Affairs and Strategic Initiatives with the Nature Conservancy of West Virginia. “Our forests, fields, streams and parks provide places to hike, hunt, fish, mountain bike and support a growing outdoor recreation and tourism economy.” 

While there are plenty of projects in West Virginia that this money – in the form of a block sum designated between state and federal funds – will immediately impact, two population restoration projects are currently being pursued by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources that could benefit immensely from this: Ruffed grouse restoration in the Monongalia National Forest and brook trout restoration in the Eastern Panhandle.  

Both ruffed grouse and brook trout are native to the Mountain State and populations have severely dropped over the last few decades for multiple reasons. Both species are also integral to Appalachia as a whole, but more on that in a moment. 

The birds and the brooks

Before the turn of the 21st century, ruffed grouse hunting in West Virginia was a mainstay. However, since the introduction of West Nile Virus to the lower 48 states in 1999, bird populations have plummeted. While the connection to WNV is a recent discovery by Lisa Williams, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s lead grouse biologist and project specialist for webless migratory game birds, habitat loss has been a driving factor for population declines as well. 

Twenty years later, there’s now a network of mid-Atlantic state wildlife agencies working together to restore the birds before they reach a critical point and are considered for the Endangered Species List. Further, the WVDNR is using the PGC’s Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool as a base to build its version of the G-PAST GIS mapping tool.

On the ground, early successional habitat restoration is taking place in the southern part of the Monongalia National Forest led by Rob Tallman, a Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager. Agents are primarily working in the Greenbrier Range of the National Forest, specifically Kumbrabrow State Forest. Tallman, a 19-year veteran of the DNR and ornithologist, saw first-hand the effects of WNV on songbird populations. His expertise, coupled with support from the Ruffed Grouse Society, National Wild Turkey Federation, West Virginia State Parks, West Virginia Division of Forestry and the National Forest has secured funding to continue work through 2025. 

Another set of projects concerns the state’s dwindling native wild brook trout population. Habitat loss due to human interaction – logging, mining, overfishing, etc. – is the biggest driver for the declining numbers, however, climate change is believed to be another factor. Global warming has shown to change pH levels in both saltwater and freshwater, and brook trout are incredibly sensitive to this. 

One project, spearheaded by WVDNR District 2 fisheries biologist Brandon Keplinger, has finally reached level ground after years of ups and downs in the Eastern Panhandle. Trout Unlimited is also helping restore brook trout in the limestone-laden panhandle. The area is part of the Potomac River Watershed and is host to three fisheries located in the Monongalia and George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Over the years, TU boasts 25 miles of stream restoration, restoration of over 500 acres of riparian habitat, improved grazing management on over 300 farms and much more. 

This impressive work can only be bolstered by the GAOA.

Manchin notes that once the block of LWCF funds is given to the state, it can choose which projects to fund. While some may worry about bureaucratic decisions not going to the necessary outlets, LWCF funds are designated solely for outdoor recreation asset management.

A 10-year breakdown of where Land and Water Conservation Fund monies have gone between state and federal entities and programs. (Graph by LWCF Coalition)

“Once we identify the projects, we take the recommendation from LWCF working with all the local groups. What I [and Sen. Capito] do, both of us can look at the recommendations and the requests anybody in West Virginia is making for a valid project that needs funded, and I can guarantee you we can make that happen,” Manchin said. “But we’ve got to make sure the proper requests and proper type of project meet the requirements. Once it does that, those two should definitely fall in line with what needs to be done.”

According to Wheatley, the Nature Conservancy works with both state and federal funds. On the state side, the group works with the West Virginia Department of Commerce specifically for state-side LWCF projects while others work with monies that go toward federal land management units in the state – like the national forests and New River Gorge. 

“There’s a rigorous review process,” Wheatley said. “There’s a way to lift up State of West Virginia priorities for those LWCF monies.” 

While all projects will likely be vying for – and will benefit at some point from – LWCF funds, it’s important to note that the state’s natural ecosystem is all intertwined. 

“There are benefits around mitigating impacts of climate change, these conserved lands act as natural carbon sinks to address those challenges,” executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition Angie Rosser said. “These public lands protect headwaters – they serve as a natural buffer for our headwaters that provide our drinking water supplies – and the things its doing to recover our wildlife populations that enhance overall hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing experiences that we’ve come to know and enjoy. These are not fleeting benefits, what this fund does is make sure that these are permanent benefits that will be enjoyed for generations to come.”

Financial impacts

It’s been more than 100 years since the National Park Service was created in 1916, and according to 2018 data, the NPS faces almost a $12 billion maintenance backlog. As of 2018, national park sites in West Virginia make up $61.8 million of the total. 

However, in 2018, more than 1.6 million people visiting NPS sites in the Mountain State and $73.6 million was spent in gateway communities. That cash flow support over 1,000 jobs and added a cumulative benefit of $85.8 million to the state economy according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust. According to a report by the LWCF Coalition, when it comes to general outdoor recreation, it brings $9 billion in consumer spending and generates 91,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in wages and salaries. That then creates $660 million in state and local tax revenue. The report also notes that $905 million is generated through wildlife recreation spending. 

“We know that conservation is a proven cost-effective method for creating jobs and driving our economy,” Wheatley said. “Now more than ever is the time more than ever to get this bill passed.” 

“There are thousands and thousands and millions of acres that we citizens can’t get to. This is going to help open that up,” Manchin said. “When I say this is a win-win, and think about how far we’ve come in one year, the day after I introduced the bill for permanent funding we had bipartisan support.” 

Manchin also cited the 2019 National Park Visitor Spending Efforts Effects report released Thursday morning to further back his stance. According to the report, 328 million visitors enjoyed the national park system nationwide and spent an estimated $21 billion in local gateway communities. That money supported a total of 341,000 jobs of which 278,000 were in communities adjacent to parks. Further, national parks accounted for $41.7 billion in economic output in the national economy. 

“Whatever your reason for supporting our bill or for whatever reason you may be reluctant to support it, we’ve given you many reasons why you should support it. There’s something for everybody,” Manchin said. “My job is that the state of West Virginia is heard loud and clear. We fought hard for this and want to make sure we’re treated fairly.” 

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