Protecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea

Protecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea
© Getty Images

A year ago, President TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE signed a bill into law that will go down as one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation this century. The Great American Outdoors Act, which will ensure that Americans will be able to enjoy our nation’s public lands for generations to come, was a rare bipartisan victory in an era gripped by bitter partisanship. As Americans flock to Yellowstone and Yosemite in historic numbers this summer, we should celebrate the spirit that gave birth to and has maintained America’s best idea. 

The Great American Outdoors Act was a solution crafted over several years to address a decades-old problem. Hosting ever greater numbers of visitors each year, the facilities and infrastructure at national parks, as well as national forests, Wildlife Refuges and Recreation Areas, had fallen into disrepair. Deferred maintenance and unfinished repairs, from aging bathrooms to crumbling roads, totaled roughly $12 billion.

Spearheaded by Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Senate GOP seeks bipartisan panel to investigate Afghanistan withdrawal Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (R-Mont.) and former Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerColorado remap plan creates new competitive district Protecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm MORE (R-Colo.), the Great American Outdoors Act planned to allocate $1.9 billion of energy development revenues annually for critical updates and repairs on public lands across the United States. The bill also established a permanent revenue stream for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an immensely popular program that supports the creation of trails, boat launches, sports fields and other recreation areas. Importantly, for conservative supporters of the effort, the Great American Outdoors Act drew from existing revenues, rather than imposing any new taxes.

ADVERTISEMENT

After extensive negotiations and support from groups ranging from the liberal League of Conservation Voters to right-leaning Ducks Unlimited, the Senate passed the bill 73 to 25 in June of 2020. A month later, the House passed the Great American Outdoors Act, sending it to Trump’s desk. Despite his New York City-sensibilities and hostility toward environmentalists on issues such as climate change, Trump enthusiastically signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law. At the signing ceremony, Trump’s mispronunciation of Yosemite (Yo, Semite!) quickly turned into a viral moment. Yet, as many on the left have undoubtedly already forgotten, Trump also sealed his role in history as an American president who presided over one of our nation’s great conservation achievements.

In 2020, America’s National Parks welcomed over 237 million visitors, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Great Smoky Mountains National Park had over 12 million visitors alone. Countless young Americans looked out over the Grand Canyon and saw the majesty of the Grand Tetons for the first time. Hunting and fishing license sales increased 12 percent and 14 percent respectively, reversing a decades-long decline, as Americans went outside to escape the pandemic. The great outdoors provided solace and connection when we needed it most.

A year later, as the delta variant spreads through communities, and Americans are bitterly divided over issues of critical race theory and illegal immigration, our love of the outdoors and commitment to protecting America’s natural beauty can unite us.

Our National Parks are a truly American idea. In the old world, beautiful landscapes and majestic wildlife were the domain — quite literally the property — of the aristocracy, inaccessible to common people. In 1872, recognizing it for the priceless treasure it is, President Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. In 1906, inspired by his time in the American West and a fateful camping trip with conservationist John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt brought Yosemite National Park into the public trust. A decade later, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service, which cares for more than 400 national park sites today. Each is open to Americans of every race, color and creed, ready to fulfill that eternal need which Muir so eloquently captured: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” 

As we debate our nation’s sins and virtues, grapple with racial and economic inequalities and struggle to discern America’s future in a rapidly changing world, we should all find peace and confidence in America’s best idea. Nothing represents the promise, beauty and hope of America better than our national parks. A year ago, Republicans and Democrats came together, despite their differences, to build on our nation’s legacy of conservation and guarantee that future generations will receive their natural inheritance. Today, we should celebrate this achievement, and renew our commitment to protecting America’s best idea.

Quill Robinson is the vice president of government affairs at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).