WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Great American Outdoors Act Wednesday, 310-107, ushering in a new era for American conservation. The legislation now moves to President Donald Trump’s desk for signing.
“Passing the Great American Outdoors Act is quite simply the most significant investment in conservation in decades. It’s a huge win for wildlife, our natural treasures, our economy, and all Americans, who enjoy our America’s public lands for solace, recreation, and exercise, especially amid this pandemic,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The Great American Outdoors Act shows us once again that investing in our public lands and waters is a rare issue that transcends partisan politics. All Americans will benefit from this historic legislation, which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, expand outdoor recreation opportunities in every community, and accelerate our nation’s economic recovery from COVID-19.”
“I’m excited to see the House of Representatives overwhelmingly pass the Great American Outdoors Act just as the Senate did last month,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said. “This package provides full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and will significantly reduce the approximately $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog on our Country’s public lands. This bill is truly a historic conservation victory and will ensure that America’s treasured public lands are preserved for generations to come. I’m proud of this bipartisan piece of legislation and look forward to the President signing it into law.”
In early March, Trump gave his blessing, tweeting that he was in support of permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Manchin, Gardner and a bipartisan group of their colleagues immediately sprung into action. A project of Manchin’s since being elected to the Senate in 2010, the puzzle pieces finally fit together and S. 3422, the Great American Outdoors Act, was formally introduced March 9. GAOA will fully fund LWCF on an annual basis at $900 million, and will also provide nearly $2 billion a year over five years ($9.5 billion) to begin addressing the deferred maintenance backlog on federal lands.
“This has been a priority of mine and the Democrats,” Manchin said in a previous interview with The Dominion Post. “I look around West Virginia at all of the things that benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, whether it’s Canaan Valley, Blackwater Falls, New River Park – every county in West Virginia has benefited somehow by land being preserved through the investments of LWCF. I’ve known this group and worked with them for a long time.”
The LWCF was established by Congress in 1965, investing royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to federal agencies as well as state and local governments for projects focused on maintaining, acquiring and restoring public land assets. In its long history, LWCF has only been fully funded twice, typically only being funded halfway. In total, Manchin noted that $22 billion has been lost to “the black hole of the Treasury.” After a series of expirations and reauthorizations, LWCF was permanently reauthorized on March 12, 2019 – a piece of legislation led by Manchin.
In an emotional speech on the House floor, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) widow of the late-John Dingell – one of the original writers and sponsors of the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950 – said that John would have been proud to see this legislation passed. John passed away Feb. 7, 2019, in Dearborn, Mich. He served Michigan as a Congressman for more than 59 years.
“This historic legislation makes good in our commitment to preserve our nation’s environmental heritage for future generations,” Dingell said. “This is an emotional moment for me. It provides full, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, landmark conservation legislation that my late husband, John Dingell, wrote, and helped establish in 1964. The LWCF funding has helped Michigan and nation’s critical natural resources, while supporting local economies, creating jobs and providing opportunities for outdoor recreation throughout the country.”
With this legislation passed, those who fought for the bill – U.S. Congressmen and women, as well as conservationists – leave their mark on the long history of American conservation. As monumental as when President Theodore Roosevelt and first chief of the United States Forest Service Gifford Pinchot began setting aside public lands at the turn of the 20th century, now the Great American Outdoors Act bolsters that.
“LWCF was permanently reauthorized in 2019 as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation and Management and Recreation Act,” Dingell added with a shaky voice and tears in her eyes, “but has received full funding just twice in its long history. The permanent full funding in this legislation is the culmination of decades of work by the conservation community and my late husband and our wonderful current dean, Don Young, who first advocated for this permanent funding through the Conservation and Reinvestment Act in 1999.”
West Virginia, jobs and the Great American Outdoors Act
Monies from GAOA will go toward many projects in West Virginia, split between LWCF and federal maintenance projects.
The Hooke Brothers project in the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County is by far one of the largest that will benefit, as it will add a 367-acre parcel owned by a timber company to the forest. This transfer was ranked as the 14th highest priority land acquisition project in the country according to a release by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Further, according to the release, adding the parcel, “will expand the opportunities for connecting trails systems in the area,” which will benefit a wide swath of recreation enthusiasts. Work also needs to be done in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest bringing the total forest projects’ cost to $1.67 million. As for other plans in West Virginia, such as those involving the Appalachian Trail, New River Gorge, Gauley and Bluestone National Rivers, Harpers Ferry National Park and the Historic Preservation and Stephen T. Mather Training Centers, deferred maintenance from the 2018 fiscal year totaled more than $61.84 million.
The adage, “You have to spend money to make money,” holds up here. West Virginia has received $246.2 million over the last 50 years from the Land and Water Conservation Fund which has gone towards protecting Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Harpers Ferry National Park, the Monongahela National Forest and New River Gorge National River, according to an LWCF report. Further, $4 million in Forest Legacy Program grants have also been funded by the LWCF to help protect working forests. In return? West Virginia has banked $9 billion in consumer spending, while 91,000 jobs generated $2.4 billion in wages and salaries, $660 million annually in state and local tax revenue and $905 million in wildlife recreation spending by more than 994,000 sportsmen and women. The same report notes that LWCF has protected 57,000 acres in river access and 2,000 named rock climbing routes in the Gauley River and New River Gorge Recreation Area, among other projects. From this, 1.2 million visitors contribute $53 million to the local economies.
While there was overwhelming support for GAOA, there were naturally those who opposed it.
Representatives Garrett Graves (R-La.) was one of the dissenting voices, citing that during the global COVID-19 pandemic, we are going to, “spend billions of dollars repairing fences, putting up new signs and fixing toilets at our wildlife refuges, parks and forests.”
“What this legislation does is takes everything else and puts it on the back burner. Unemployment assistance goes behind this, job opportunities goes behind this, improving our schools and getting our kids actually educated goes behind this … because this is mandatory spending,” Graves said. “I’ve heard members sit here and say, ‘We have a $20 billion maintenance backlog.’ Do you know why that is? Because we failed to appropriate the money because we’ve determined it’s not a priority in the appropriations process. So why are we now stepping in and circumventing that whole process again?”
Cedric Richmond (D-La.) was also opposed to the bill. Richmond cited that money could be going elsewhere, such as improving Louisiana schools. Graves cited Richmond’s dissenting opinions in his argument saying that the GAOA is a piece of “tone-deaf” legislation.
Then, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) took the podium, vehemently rebutting Grave’s points.
“I have great respect for Mr. Graves and I have great respect for his concern,” Hoyer said, “but very frankly the things he talks about have been pending in the United States Senate for 60 days, untended. The leader of the Senate said the states can go bankrupt. The sense of priority apparently does not exist there, and that’s regrettable.
“This legislation that I rise in support of is an important piece of legislation. … The wringing of hands about this legislation pressing out other priorities I think is not accurate. It is accurate that this is an important piece of legislation that will do much good.”
Hoyer recalled the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF in 2019 was the first of a two-step process to make sure that critical land and conservation projects across the nation would be taken care of after years of neglect.
“The impact of these investments will be felt not only in tourism and improved public access to our public lands but also a cleaner and healthier environment over the longterm,” Hoyer said. “This bill passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote … I believe we will demonstrate hopefully similar, overwhelming support in the House later today.”
Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also spoke in favor of the bill.
“The Great American Outdoors Act takes the next step in our pro-conservation agenda as it broadly protects and boldly protects our county’s natural and cultural heritage for our children, grandchildren and generations to come,” Pelosi said. “In passing this legislation, Congress is ensuring that America lives up to its conservation promises.”
Pelosi cited that in its 55 years, LWCF has provided over $17 billion for more than 40,000 recreation and conservation projects in every county in the country. According to Pelosi, it also addresses environmental injustice as it would create green spaces near low-income communities and communities of color.
Other voices against the legislation were Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) who said the bill is an example of “everything that is wrong with Washington,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) saying we would “add to the deficit” and that the bill would “add to the inability of the [Forest Service] to manage more lands,” and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) who ended the opposing arguments. Bishop argued that this bill “diminishes” opportunity for urban recreation opportunities and that the federal government will just buy more land.
“We can’t even afford the property we already have. There is a $20 billion maintenance backlog, but what this is attempting to do is find a way to put more money to buy more land so we can exacerbate that problem,” Bishop said.
Manchin cleared these concerns long ago, before the Senate voted for cloture.
“I understand the ones that come from states where 90% of the state is already public land, but we won’t be going into areas and buying more land where people don’t want or need more public lands,” Manchin said. “But we’ve got to take care of what we do have. That’s been a hot topic in some of the western states. We understand that.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) ended the arguments for those in favor of the bill, saying that it is historic, important, necessary and an essential step.
“This isn’t about robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Grijalva said. “It is not about taking money from the East to give to the West. It is not about denying coastal states their share.”
Grijalva noted that H.R. 1957 was originally a taxpayers’ protection bill, sponsored by the late-John Lewis of Georgia who passed away this week.
“I can’t personally speak to Representative Lewis’ thoughts on conservation spending, but I do believe our late-friend would be happy with the work we’ve done here today. Representative Lewis truly believed in government by and for the people, all the people. He challenged us to leave petty partisanship at the door to consider the essential pursuit of justice and equity that we’ve long sought and failed to meet in this country. I’m proud that we can honor his legacy with the passage of this bill. When we come together as we have today as the peoples’ representatives working toward the common goal of protecting future generations then perhaps there is hope. We might see Representative Lewis’ vision realized.”