The Best Place to Find Bipartisanship in DC: The Outdoors

Charles Cooper

How the Great American Outdoors Act is once again proving that public lands and outdoor recreation policy is bringing Republicans and Democrats together.

Washington, DC, is known for many things, but bipartisanship is not one of them. Capitol Hill has become increasingly divided and, as policy and politics have begun to merge with a big election on the horizon, it will only get worse. But one interesting trend that is developing is that Republicans and Democrats are coming together around a once heavily divided policy space: public lands and outdoor recreation.
In 2019, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which was a legislative package of public lands provisions that had been in the works for over a decade. It was lauded as “historic” and “landmark legislation” and passed with overwhelming support in the House and Senate. While many close to this policy space hoped its passage would spur some momentum for more bold and bipartisan policy solutions, there was also some concern that this may have been an anomaly and that it would be another decade before such an impactful public lands bill could advance through Congress.
Next month, an equally historic bill is likely to pass the Senate – the Great American Outdoors Act, which would provide an innovative solution to address the growing maintenance backlog on public lands and would provide permanent funding ($900 million annually) to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Like the bill that passed last year, the Great American Outdoors Act has defied DC norms and has brought both of sides of the political aisle together around a major policy solution, despite the looming 2020 election.
While the difficulty in pulling this together cannot be understated, there are several important factors that seem unique to the outdoors policy space:

  • A Strong Connection to Health and Wellness: Policymakers (and their constituents) see value in the outdoors well beyond “a nice to have.” There is a growing appreciation for the health and wellness benefits of the outdoors, especially now. Massive increases in people hiking, biking, and exploring public lands throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (many for the first time) is a growing trend that is not going away.
  • A Contributor to the Economy: Outdoor recreation is a major contributor to the U.S. economy and will hopefully play a large role in our economic recovery. Guides, outfitters, retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers create jobs in communities throughout the country and are connecting more and more people to the outdoors.
  • A Unified Vision Among Stakeholders: While nobody agrees on everything, stakeholders – from conservation organizations to industry trade associations — have appropriately aligned around bold policies, including the Great American Outdoors Act. It is unusual for any policy space to find such unity, but it provides results.
  • A Common Place for Republicans and Democrats: The outdoors may be one place where partisanship and politics have not divided our nation. Constituents of policymakers in every state and congressional district value the outdoors and public lands, regardless of their political affiliation. They connect public lands to the history and fabric of our country, not a political party. Policymakers see that and respond to it appropriately.
    The Great American Outdoors Act will be an impactful and historically significant bill to advance conservation, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy. It will also hopefully provide an important case study on how Washington can work together to advance meaningful solutions regardless of the partisan climate.

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