This Wednesday marked the passing of the Great American Outdoors Act, which garnered a rare, sweeping bipartisan support when it made its way through Congress. The bipartisan unity enjoyed yesterday by the historic conservation and public lands bill comes at a time of national crisis, as the country continues to contend with the coronavirus pandemic and prepares for negotiations over how to address the economic and public health fallout from the spread of the disease.
Back in June the bill was approved by the Senate in a 73-25 vote before landing at the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, where 81 Republicans joined 229 Democrats in their vote to pass the act. This final vote now sends the Great American Outdoors Act to President Trump for his signature, of which he has already expressed his support.
“We MUST protect our National Parks for our children and grandchildren,” wrote President Trump on Twitter. “I am calling on the House to pass the GREAT AMERICAN OUTDOORS ACT today.”
Timing is unclear on when the president is expected to sign it, but the bill could become law within the next several days.
Approval of the bill represents a rare victory for environmentalists during the president’s time in office, who is known for attempting to roll back more than 100 environmental rules and protections such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
It also means a win for the two Republican senators who pushed for its passage and are both facing competitive reelection races this year in swing states where the president's popularity is sinking: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana.
Daines and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, Benji Backer, write in an Op Ed for The Hill: “It’s clear that national parks have united Americans of all kinds of backgrounds, not just those who are actively involved in the political process. In 2018, a Pew poll demonstrated that 94 percent of Americans thought it was important to preserve historic buildings and landmarks. That’s why this bill is so unique. Not only is it a landmark piece of legislation, but the broad coalitions who support it are just as impressive. Republicans and Democrats alike know that Americans want national parks preserved for many, many years to come.”
“It took public lands to bring a divided government together, and the ‘Great American Outdoors Act’ is no exception. The bill will prove to be a roadmap for future legislative collaboration, and we look forward to President Trump signing it into law,” they say.
Preserving our public lands, investing in our outdoor recreation economy and ensuring future generations can continue enjoying Colorado's beautiful outdoors is an ongoing task.— Rep. Joe Neguse (@RepJoeNeguse) July 23, 2020
I'm proud to secure full and permanent funding for #LWCF, next stop: passing the #COREAct. pic.twitter.com/cBq6vVcSdE
What will the Great American Outdoors Act do?
The legislation is being hailed as one of the most important environmental bills to pass in decades — securing definitive funding for both the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Restore Our Parks Act. The LWCF is the likely most important source of federal funding to create and develop things like local parks, trails, boat launches, sports fields, other recreation areas and park infrastructure. Under the act, LWCF will receive $900 million annually by way of offshore oil and gas revenues, meaning the money will not be coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket.
Since the program was signed into law back in 1965, more than 42 thousand state and local park projects in every state have been funded through LWCF.
The Great American Outdoors Act will also help fund the repair of deteriorating infrastructure in public lands, hopefully allowing more Americans to access and enjoy them. During a time when COVID-19 cases only continue to rise in most parts of the country, occasional time spent outdoors with the opportunity for social distancing is more necessary than ever. In fact, a recent National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) poll found that 83 percent of U.S. adults agree that visiting their local parks, trails and open spaces is essential when it comes to their mental and physical well-being during the pandemic.
A recently released study by the Chesapeake Conservancy Conservation Innovation Center showed that public parks within an hour’s drive of a metro area experienced significant increases in visitation during COVID-19. Within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, metro areas experienced a significant increase in park visitation, with Washington, D.C.,’s visitation to public parks rising by nearly 95 percent.
“I am thrilled to see the Great American Outdoors Act pass with bipartisan support,” says the mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, parks, trails and greenspaces have played an essential role in our communities offering emotional and physical health benefits. We have also seen the positive impact a healthy lifestyle can play in the fight against COVID-19, which is why it is critical we expand park access for the one-in-three Americans who do not have a close-to-home park.”
“Establishing the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund and funding the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will result in developing new or revitalizing existing urban parks, greenspaces, and recreation opportunities, as well as stimulating job creation and economic activity,” Price added.
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