On August 4, President Donald J. Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), federal legislation that will dramatically increase the pace of park conservation and improvements across America. The move comes after many years of bipartisan work and is a longstanding priority for America’s parks, people, and park supporters like PlayCore.
What is the Great American Outdoors Act?
The GAOA is the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation. The Act combines two bills that might otherwise not have passed on their own. One sets aside funding to address the maintenance backlog at national parks. The other permanently supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was established in 1964 to protect natural areas and water resources.
Why is it so important?
It couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment. For more than 50 years, Congress has struggled to adequately fund land and water conservation, leading to a never-ending backlog of maintenance and other critical needs in our parks and public lands. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important parks and public lands are to communities’ physical, mental and financial health. This bill will help on all fronts by revitalizing and improving access to shared outdoor spaces like local trails and city parks; addressing a backlog of maintenance needs for our national parks and other public lands; connecting and completing our national, regional and local trail networks, providing close-to-home playgrounds and ballfields to support healthy kids and families, expanding sportsmen’s access and wildlife habitat, safeguarding our drinking water supplies, and even putting people to work on infrastructure projects and supporting the vital recreation, travel and tourism economy.
How much money is involved and what will it impact?
The legislation has two main impacts. First, it establishes a National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund that will provide up to $9 billion over the next five years to fix deferred maintenance at national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, Indian Schools, and federal lands, with $6.5 billion earmarked specifically to the 419 national park units. The number of visitors to the national parks system has increased by 50 percent since 1980, but the parks’ budget has remained effectively flat. This imbalance has led to a $12 billion backlog of maintenance to repair roads, trails, campgrounds, monuments, fire safety, utilities, and visitor infrastructure — which will finally be addressed.
Second, the GAOA guarantees $900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a flagship conservation program paid for by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. The LWCF was established in 1964 with an authorization level of $900m, but in many years Congress has appropriated less than half of this amount, shifting the rest to other priorities. The passage of GAOA will prevent this from happening in the future. The LWCF is especially important because it helps fund the four main federal land programs (National Parks, National Forests, Fish and Wildlife, and Bureau of Land Management) and provides grants to state and local governments for recreation and conservation.
Where is the money coming from?
The government will use revenues from energy development to provide up to $1.9 billion a year for five years to provide needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and American Indian schools. It will also use royalties from offshore oil and natural gas to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million a year to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the country.
In celebration of President Trump signing the Great American Outdoors Act, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt announced free entrance to national parks and public lands for August 5, 2020, and he designated August 4th as the “Great American Outdoors Day.” In future years, every August 4 will be a free entrance day to celebrate the signing of this landmark legislation, joining the other scheduled entrance fee-free days which commemorate or celebrate significant dates.
To learn more about qualifying for Land and Water Conservation Funds, the US Department of the Interior provides additional information here. Parks interested in funding should work with their state government to discover the process being used to qualify.