What to expect next in the 117th Congress and the incoming administration on the Outdoor Recreation sector.
At A Glance
- Outdoor recreation has become a top-tier policy issue on both sides of the political aisle.
- Shifts in committee leadership will change priorities, but outdoor recreation will remain on the agenda.
- Outdoor recreation will align with other debates, including climate, equity & infrastructure.
Lay of the Land
The 116th Congress represented an unprecedented shift in the policy landscape around public lands, conservation, and outdoor recreation. Two historic bills – the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (S. 47) and the Great American Outdoors Act (H.R. 1957) – were passed and signed into law, representing the most consequential legislative activity in this policy space since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was created in 1965.
Movement of these issues was the result of four key factors: (1) increased bipartisanship around public lands and outdoor recreation, (2) the broad adoption of economic data highlighting the impact of the outdoor recreation economy, (3) a unified advocacy force of industry, non-profits, and trade associations across the broad spectrum of outdoor recreation, and (4) the dramatic increase in outdoor recreation during the COVID pandemic.
The emergence of public lands and outdoor recreation as top-tier policy issues in Congress has paralleled national policy discussions around equity, health and wellness, and climate change – all of which can leverage outdoor recreation as part of broader policy solutions. This policy sector is well-positioned to build upon its current momentum in the 117th Congress.
Both the House and Senate will need to adjust to new committee leadership as Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) is likely to become the lead Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and several candidates will be competing to be the lead Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee. While priorities will certainly shift, momentum around outdoor recreation, public lands, and conservation will stay consistent.
- An economic stimulus package will be an early opportunity to insert funding for outdoor recreation, conservation, and public lands priorities. Depending on how a stimulus package is drafted, there could be funding available for trail building and maintenance, conservation projects, climate change, reforestation initiatives, rural economic development, and active transportation.
- The deadline to reauthorize surface transportation legislation was extended until September 20, 2021. Both the House and Senate included large increases in funding for bicycle infrastructure and bicycle safety within their bills; expect final legislation to have strong funding for active transportation.
- While the Farm Bill does not expire until 2023, discussions around the bill will start in 2021, and outdoor recreation is well-positioned to have a strong footprint within the legislation, especially given a likely focus on the rural economy.
- The Great American Outdoors Act provided unprecedented funding to reduce the maintenance backlog on public lands; additional funding opportunities may come through an infrastructure package.
- A short-term fix for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is partially dependent on state funds that are facing pandemic-related shortfalls, may finds its way onto the agenda in 2021.
- A recreation package, including initiatives to streamline permitting and create more equitable access to outdoor recreation, may be considered in the remaining days of 2020 or in 2021.
While President-elect Biden does not have a strong history of leadership on outdoor policy, much of the recent policy movement has been fueled by Congress or leaders within key agencies – especially by the Department of the Interior. We expect policy to continue to be driven through those channels, not the White House.
- Key personnel decisions will be important to watch. Strong outdoor advocates will be on the short-list to be Secretary of the Interior. It will be important for the outdoor recreation community to inject their priorities into other agency nomination decisions as well, including those with jurisdiction over veterans, health, transportation, agriculture, and the environment.
- Climate change will be an important policy venue for the outdoors. While President-elect Biden has not championed much outdoor policy, he is aggressively prioritizing climate policy. Overlaying outdoor policy as a climate solution will be a good strategy to be a top-tier priority for this administration.
- Like climate, equity will be a focus of the new administration and there is real opportunity to align outdoor policy with solutions to provide underserved communities with quality outdoor recreation opportunities.
- President-Elect Biden will quickly focus on COVID response; the health and wellness benefits of outdoor recreation throughout the pandemic should be something his team is quickly educated on and championing. Similarly, a relief package for COVID could be an opportunity to help strengthen the outdoor recreation economy, especially for small outdoor retailers and guides.