The Great American Outdoors Act is a Band-Aid on a Bullet Wound
No picture can capture what it feels like to watch a sunrise on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, gaze up at a redwood tree, camp in the Ouachita National Forest, or hear the waves crash against the rocky coastline of Acadia National Park. All of these and more are opportunities on American public lands. As a lifelong resident of Hot Springs, Arkansas, some of my earliest memories involve exploring Hot Springs National Park, and when I’d ask my children what they wanted to do for fun, they would often choose floating on the Buffalo National River. Since being elected to Congress, my main district office has been located in the National Park Service building in downtown Hot Springs.
America is a place of beauty with rich natural resources, quite literally from sea to shining sea. We have a responsibility to steward this land and our resources well, and to leave the country in better condition than we found it. A huge part of that responsibility involves investing in our national parks, state parks, and other public lands for future generations.
Unfortunately, to this point, we have failed. Due to scarce resources, an ever-growing maintenance backlog is making it difficult for us to properly care for all of our public land.
The Great American Outdoors Act is this Congress’s attempt to begin addressing the problem. The bill’s two main provisions are a new maintenance backlog fund and permanent full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. I support the Great American Outdoors Act for what it is: a step in the right direction. It will need to be the first step of many in order to maintain our public lands.
To understand the legislation, we need to go back to the 1960s and first understand the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress originally established the fund to “assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility to…outdoor recreation resources.” The original law required that states receive the lion’s share of funding, since state leaders are best equipped to allocate funding to benefit local recreational areas and meet the needs of people in their communities. A total of 60 % of Land and Water Conservation Fund funding originally went to states matching grants. However, over the years that allocation shifted, and in 2015 only 16% of funding went to the states.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is funded by taking a portion of revenue generated by offshore energy production. Under the current structure, it accrues roughly $900 million in revenue annually. Congress then appropriates the money as it sees fit. As a result, many of these tax dollars have been allocated to other programs. We’ve been able to use the Land and Water Conservation Fund to improve public access and protect Arkansas’ outdoor recreation areas such as the Ouachita and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. But the fund alone can’t meet all the demands of public land, nor is that its purpose.
Enter the Great American Outdoors Act. More than 327 million people visited our national parks in 2019, and the strain on public lands is bleeding them dry. Much of our beloved parks’ infrastructure was built decades ago, and with each wave of new visitors, those roads, trails, and campgrounds speed toward disrepair. We are loving our parks to death. The Great American Outdoors Act is a helpful Band-Aid by addressing the maintenance backlog. With an estimated $16.5 billion in deferred maintenance projects facing our public lands, a solution is long overdue. The Great American Outdoors Act kickstarts this repair, directing nearly $2 billion annually toward improving both wild and urban areas, including projects from fixing potholes to clearing overgrown trails.
However, passing the Great American Outdoors Act doesn’t mean we can pack up and call it a day. Our current situation is indicative of a greater underlying problem in how we manage public land. Congress needs more oversight when it comes to public lands, and it also needs to start using money for long-term solutions. These issues did not arise overnight; they’ve stemmed from years of neglect. Now that the Great American Outdoors Act permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Department of the Interior is free to acquire land in perpetuity. As a result, we must not put ourselves deeper in the hole by buying more land than we can maintain. This will require a comprehensive plan to manage every acre of public land, monitoring and improving it as needed. Furthermore, we need to use the Land and Water Conservation Fund to its full extent, for example, returning to giving states a significant say in where the funding is most necessary.
Outdoor recreationists of both political parties are celebrating the Great American Outdoors Act’s passage, and rightfully so. It has revitalized the conversation about conservation, and I support it as an initial fix. I’m proud to represent a congressional district that contains 2 million acres of national forest, a national park, America’s very first national river, and several national wildlife refuges. I’ve made countless memories in these and other parks across the country, and I want them to remain treasured places for generations to come. In order to see real change, however, we need to systemically reform both the way we use Land and Water Conservation Fund monies and how we manage public lands. America’s wild lands and natural resources deserve nothing less.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican, represents Arkansas' fourth congressional district. He is a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and that committee's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.