The Great American Outdoors Act proves that grassroots advocacy and democracy still work

With dedicated funds from Congress, we can start to fix our national parks and set aside new green spaces for wildlife and public uses.
A National Park mountain range against clear blue and lightly clouded skies overlooking a wooded forest area.
National parks are the crown jewel of America's public lands. Now, they will finally get updates to their aging infrastructures. NPS Photo/J. Tobiason

This story originally featured on Outdoor Life.

For decades, the conservation community has been advocating for the full and permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a program that uses royalties from offshore oil and gas operations to purchase new public lands and maintain public access. Today President Donald Trump—who has often been criticized by conservation and public land advocates—signed a bill that will do just that.

“We’re here today to celebrate the passage of truly landmark legislation that will preserve America’s majestic natural wonders, priceless historic treasures—and that’s exactly what they are—grand national monuments, and glorious national parks,” President Trump said before signing the bill. “This is a very big deal, and from an environmental standpoint, and just from a beauty of our country standpoint, there hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect.”

The Great American Outdoors Act achieves two main goals. The first is a decisive victory in the decades-old battle to secure full funding for the LWCF, at $900 million annually. Until now, advocates had to renew the case for funding each year, and their efforts have only ever been partially effective. Since its establishment in 1964, the LWCF has only been fully funded twice. And, if you tally up how much that appropriations process left on the table, as the LWCF Coalition has, you’ll find that Congress diverted more than $22 billion from public lands and waters over the past six decades.

Second, the GAOA will chip away at the $16 billion worth of maintenance backlogs on federal land by establishing The National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. This new fund—earmarked for deferred maintenance projects—will receive a maximum of $1.9 billion annually to be divided among federal land management agencies over five years. Like the LWCF, it’s funded by federal revenue from energy development. Most of this fund will be allocated to National Parks, which bear the lion’s share of maintenance issues, but it’s still a win for public land owners everywhere—especially since some politicians have used the backlog as an excuse to stop funding and acquiring new public lands.

Originally introduced in March, the GAOA since gained momentum with 60 total cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. In particular, senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) championed the bill in the Senate, where it passed 73 to 25 in June.

“This is the only piece of legislation that I’ve worked on that I feel like is of the scale of the kind of thing that Teddy Roosevelt put in place when he was president,” says Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who also cosponsored the bill. “This is a systemic bill on infrastructure and on access and habitat. So I think, 30 years from now, people who won’t remember my name or my colleague’s name will see this for what it was—a really big deal—and they’ll be grateful for it.”

The GAOA is unquestionably great news. What’s more complex is how—and when—it passed. Our country is currently dealing with a global pandemic, a national reckoning over racism, the start of an economic recession, and a looming November election that promises to be bitterly partisan. And yet, somehow, Congress manages to come together to pass a bipartisan bill that Americans genuinely wanted … and that the president was willing to sign. How the hell did that happen?

Good politics at work

On March 3, President Trump surprised many in the public lands community when he tweeted: “I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands. ALL thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines, two GREAT Conservative Leaders!”

Both Daines and Gardner face potentially tight races this fall in states where public lands are a key issue. This was a chance for them to bring a huge win back to their constituents.

“If you are going to run for statewide office in Montana or Colorado, you’ve got to be for public lands, and you better damn well be for the LWCF,” says Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and a career advocate for LWCF funding. “[Daines and Gardner] were able to have an audience with the president and the president said, ‘What do you need?’ And what do they say? They could have said immigration, or they could have said the economy. They could have said any number of things, and they said the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

The public support that Daines and Gardner received from the president was an important change in the political tide.

“That was the watershed moment … when the President said to Congress, let’s pass the park maintenance backlog bill and also fully fund the LWCF,” says Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “Those two things together were completely unprecedented. No president had said, to do those things together, [and make them both mandatory].”

Along with the conservation benefits, there’s a lot to like about this bill for an administration and a Republican party that, coming off coronavirus shutdowns, will be determined to create jobs and boost the economy. Visitor spending associated with national parks creates a $41.7 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supports about 340,000 jobs, according to Bernhardt.

“Folks have projected that this bill could be significant [for creating jobs] and have thrown around numbers like 100,000 more jobs,” says Bernhardt. “At a time when we have tens of millions of people unemployed, having projects funded through this maintenance program and LWCF, that will be very timely and very helpful overall.”

Legislators on either side of the aisle avoided tacking on extras to the bill that would have made it unpassable. When legislators (from any party) introduce amendments to bills, the process often bogs down the original legislation. Fortunately, the clean GAOA bills in the Senate and the House found strong bi-partisan support.

A grassroots effort

The fact that Republican senators brought the bill to the floor (with the president’s support) is certainly one of the main reasons it succeeded. But President Trump’s tweet—”ALL thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines”—awards exclusive credit to the two Republican senators when, in reality, the battle for supporting the LWCF goes back decades. And in the past, Republicans have opposed it.

“The President’s budget request the last three years decreased requests for LWCF funding dramatically,” says Steve Williams, who served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the second Bush administration. “Even though everybody says the President’s budget is dead upon arrival—every President’s is—it still speaks to priorities. The facts are that this administration, in the past, hasn’t been very supportive of LWCF. Now, let’s give credit though…they’re very supportive right now [and] they deserve credit. Not all the credit. [The GAOA] initiated in Congress. It didn’t initiate with the administration. This is an election year, and it presumably will benefit all those who co-signed and supported the bill, both in the Senate and the House. Nothing’s done in Washington without thinking about the politics of it.”

The bill passed because of good politics, according to Tawney, but also because of years of advocacy to drum up not just support for the LWCF, but also recognition of its existence. When he first started mentioning the LWCF at meetings and conferences, only about five people out of every hundred would even know what it was.

“Now when I bring it up,” Tawney says, “Ninety-five percent of people not only know what it is, but they’re cheering for it.”

As the LWCF has become more recognizable to the conservation-minded public over the years, legislators have also recognized the value of public lands.

“We’re at a point right now where [supporting] public lands is bipartisan,” says Heinrich. “It hasn’t always been that way. There are many other Congresses where this kind of thing just couldn’t have gotten off the ground. And I think the sporting community gets a lot of the credit. Because left or right, we all need these places to hunt, fish, and camp and maintain our mental health.”

Groups like BHA, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and many more have been working on getting the LWCF support and funding for years.

“These things don’t happen without a real energetic grass roots push,” says Michael Hacker, senior advisor to Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC). “At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to move a Cory Gardner or a Steve Daines to champion an issue like this. They need to know that the people want it.”

In other words, advocacy works. What may feel impossible on an individual level becomes achievable when other folks rally to the cause. You know all those calls-to-action you’ve been getting for years to contact your representatives and tell them you want funding for the LWCF and national parks? This is the end result. Even though such crowdsourcing may take years to see fruition, those campaigns actually have an impact.

“The silver lining of this is it shows that your voice matters,” Tawney says.

Wartime causalities

The GAOA marks the second robust public-lands package passed during the Trump administration; the first was the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, which permanently reauthorized LWCF, which expired in 2018. Much of this can be attributed to the all-hands-on-deck efforts discussed above. But when you examine the conservation decisions that only the administration can control, critics say, there are glaring problems. In particular, iconic, pristine recreational areas are in danger of massive resource extraction projects.

This list of place-based battles with uncertain outcomes includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Tongass National Forest, and Bristol Bay, to name a few.

“When it comes to the Boundary Waters and the Pebble Mine [site at Bristol Bay], I would argue those places have never been under greater threat than they are right now,” says Steve Kline, chief policy officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Lukas Leaf, the executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, echoes this sentiment. But rather than eroding support for place-based conservation, grassroots support for the LWCF and GAOA have actually bolstered efforts to conserve valuable public lands like the BWCA, according to Leaf.

“I think all of this work kind of goes hand in hand,” Leaf says. “Especially as we’ve seen the Trump administration gut the Clean Water Act and even slim down the National Environmental Policy Act rules that came out [this month]. The list goes on and on. So I think it’s actually rallied groups and coalitions more on these issues.”

Though a bipartisan bill designed to permanently protect the BWCA was introduced in January, it still needs support in the Senate to have a chance of reaching the White House.

“If it passes the Senate and reaches Trump to even get signed, I doubt he would even do it,” Leaf says. “Unfortunately, this bill has a much better chance with a new administration at this point, as we see the work the Trump administration is doing to jam this copper-nickel project through right now. The bill has all the tools we need [to conserve the BWCA]—we just need to get a few more folks behind it.”

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental review this summer regarding the proposed open-pit mine in Bristol Bay, paving the way for the controversial mine. The Environmental Protection Agency declined to delay this process despite noting that even the least environmentally damaging option risks a “world-class fishery,” plus thousands of acres of wetlands, streams, and more.

“Past practice has shown a real interest [from the administration] in developing lands for energy and minerals,” says Williams. “I don’t expect that to change. I’ve been on the ground and in the air at the Pebble Mine site … As a conservationist, it pains me to think that the mine would go through in that location … It’s mind-boggling what’s being proposed.”

The next fight for conservation

Fortunately, as we’ve discovered with the Great American Outdoors Act, there’s precedent for popular demand moving Congress and the president to prioritize public lands and waters. And it’s not too late to speak up on behalf of these places and demand action from your legislators.

“It’s not unlike when James Watt was Secretary of the Interior [during the Regan administration and Sagebrush Rebellion],” says Heinrich. “Congress was also able to pass some really big conservation bills because there was a reaction to that over development [on public lands]. Part of what made it possible to pass this bill—and palatable for a lot of the folks who aren’t on the tip of the spear, you know general republican colleagues who don’t follow public lands that closely—is the reaction from the public on what the administration is doing to places like Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Bears Ears and Bristol Bay up in Alaska. We were going to be dealing with those challenges anyway. So you have to take that opportunity to do good things when you can. It’s public land jiujitsu.”

In the interim, you’ll likely hear more about the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, the next major bipartisan conservation package that’s working its way through Congress. It’s also packed with all kinds of provisions hunters and anglers can get behind.

Ways to take action

Tell Congress to support the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

Tell Congress we need dedicated funding in the 2020 Highway Bill to prioritize and build wildlife-friendly road crossings.

Tell Congress to protect the Boundary Waters via H.R. 5598.

Tell the EPA to veto the Pebble Mine.