The Great American Outdoors Act

By: Larry J. Schweiger

There is good news for a change. The Great American Outdoors Act has passed both the House and Senate and is now before Trump for his promised signature. More than 85% of Americans support permanent funding LWCF according to a 2013 poll from Public Opinion Strategies. Trump promised to sign this bill to help Republican senators from Colorado and Montana get reelected. Regardless of motivations, this is an essential move for all Americans. 

This bill restores and makes permanent the National Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) established by Congress in 1965. It provides needed resources for current conservation efforts by many local and regional conservation efforts, including protecting working farms and ranches and building neighborhood parks and trails.

Funding will be made available for numerous public benefits, including crucial recreational access for hunting and fishing and other outdoor activities, natural areas that are protecting valuable water resources, and many other community benefits. Protecting water resources through watershed restoration, forest, and wetland conservation is a cost-effective way to ensure clean and adequate water supplies for downstream towns and cities. A 2011 report by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation calculated the value of ecosystem services provided by natural habitats in the 48 contiguous states at “about $1.6 trillion annually, which is equivalent to more than 10% of the U.S. GDP.”

In addition to providing traditional funding for National parks, forests, historic battlefields, and cultural sites, and fish and wildlife refuges, the new law extends funding for working farmlands and ranches. According to American Farmland Trust, agricultural preservation has become a critical National priority since 50 acres of agricultural land is being lost to development every hour. 

The LWCF was authorized at $900 million annually through 2015. Yet, in recent decades, Congress restricted and shortchanged the fund undermining conservation efforts across America. There is a 12.5% royalty for Federal off-shore leases in water depths of less than 200 meters and 18.75% for all other leases. Less than half of the money accrued through the history of off-shore royalties has been appropriated to the conservation fund. 

Legislation in various forms to address the LWCF diversions has languished in Congress for decades despite enormous efforts by many national conservation organizations, including National Wildlife Federation and Nature Conservancy, as well as local land trusts and conservancies like the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The bill restores the $900 million annual allocations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It also authorizes up to $9.5 billion over five years to address the maintenance backlogs at national parks creating many jobs while restoring deteriorating park infrastructure. Sustained investment in the LWCF stimulates the economy, creates jobs, and protects and restores infrastructure. 

Now in a critical election year, the bill was quickly approved with bipartisan votes in both chambers. Motivated not by the many pressing conservation needs but by Senate election-year politics in Colorado and Montana, it passed the Senate on a 73-to-25 vote in June. In the House, it passed by a bipartisan 310-to-107 vote. Republican Senators in Colorado and Montana, two important public lands states, are in trouble for their many failures to stand up to Trump and his anti-environmental agenda. Regardless of the political motivations for moving the bill, the LWCF will make substantial contributions by strategically securing the economic assets that federal, state, and local public lands represent. 

Public lands and waters drive the outdoor recreation economy across America, especially during the pandemic as more Americans are spending time in the outdoors. According to the Department of Interior’s Federal Interagency Council on Recreation, “recreation activities in national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, marine sanctuaries and other federal managed lands and waters contributed approximately $51 billion and supported 880,000 jobs in the United States economy in 2012.” 

The Outdoor Industry Association produced an assessment entitled: “The Outdoor Recreation Economy, 2012 that concluded: “Nationally, outdoor recreation activities contribute $646 billion to the economy annually and supports outdoor recreation driving $887 billion in consumer spending, while supporting 7.6 million U.S. jobs annually, and generates $125 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. Visitor-driven business stimulates local communities surrounding national parks and other public lands. There are more than 5,000 outfitters and guiding companies that operated in proximity to national forests. 

The Trust for Public Land produced an assessment entitled: “The Return on Investment from the Land & Water Conservation Fund in 2010” reported “the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a sound investment: for every $1 invested in federal land acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, there is a return of $4 in economic value.”

Pennsylvania Connection

A prominent Pennsylvanian, Maurice K. Goddard was instrumental in creating the original LWCF. There is not a single Pennsylvanian who does not enjoy the benefits of his life’s work. Yet, few recognize the name apart from perhaps Goddard State Park. I was privileged to be a good friend and mentored by Goddard, who headed the Department of Forests and Waters and later the Department of Environmental Resources for more than two decades. He understood that the Commonwealth was the trustee of public resources for an intergenerational public benefit. Early in his tenure as Secretary of Forests and Waters, Goddard learned that California used revenue from off-shore oil production to rebuild its State Parks.

To make sure royalities derived from public lands got reinvested in public resources, Goddard crafted a bill to move revenues generated from wells under state public lands into a special fund known as the Oil and Gas Fund to be used “for conservation, recreation, dams, or flood control.” The late Governor George Leader told me that Goddard, new on the job, had cooked up this plan with Representative George B. Stevenson, a Republican before he cleared it with the Governor. To his credit, Governor Leader signed a bipartisan bill that became the Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act law as Act 256 on December 15, 1955. (With increased revenues from fracking on state lands in recent years this revenue has been illegally diverted at the state level.)

In 1958, Goddard was appointed as an alternate delegate to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) to consider America’s outdoor recreation future needs. During one of the ORRC meetings, Goddard shared his experience with the Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act and proposed that royalties from off-shore oil and gas be dedicated to fund a land and water conservation program. The findings released in 1961 by the commission included the Goddard recommendation that royalties should be used to preserve and develop outdoor recreation resources for all people. After the report was published with President Kennedy’s support, legislation was introduced with bipartisan sponsorship to launch such a program. On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, signed Goddard’s vision for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. 

For fifty-three years, the fund provided billions for conservation projects with the monies split between the Federal agencies and the states. It has been America’s most important tool for meeting conservation and recreation needs, from iconic national parks and wildlife refuges to sacred battlefields and historic sites, working forests, critically endangered species habitats, and neighborhood playgrounds and recreation facilities. Goddard was rightfully proud of his role in this substantial law, yet few people know his name. Goddard would be pleased with the vote to guarantee funding for LWCF for the next generation of Americans.

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