The Top Three Risks Facing Public Lands and Outdoor Recreation Policy

Charles Cooper

For public lands and outdoor recreation policy, stakeholders and policymakers must work to de-risk the policy space.

Public Lands

The public lands and outdoor recreation policy space is increasingly rising in the hierarchy of issues policymakers are focused on, care about, and connect with their constituencies and voters on. While we shouldn’t expect these issues to take center stage in the 2020 election, they are certainly high on the agenda among well-positioned policymakers that are focused on advancing bipartisan policies. There is no better example than the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019, which moved through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support last year and was signed into law by President Trump in 2019. I would expect 2020 to produce another comprehensive legislative effort around outdoor recreation as well. And, while there is positive news on the horizon, there are also significant challenges for those playing in this policy arena; the top three risks to public lands and outdoor recreation policy are outlined below:

Re-Polarization: In recent history, public lands and outdoor policy was plagued by the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington, DC and a growing divide within the outdoor community. It stalled several important pieces of legislation (most of which were corrected in the passage of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019) and dramatically decreased the ability to advance bipartisan policy initiatives. For the most part, this policy space has recovered, and bipartisanship is leading the way on almost all major policy fronts – permit streamlining, maintenance on public lands, funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Moving backwards, or “re-polarizing” this policy space would be a tremendous set-back, especially at a time when both parties are needed to get policies across the finish line. As difficult to solve issues become elevated, such as climate change and funding, re-polarization increasingly becomes a major risk.

De-Prioritizing Permanency: The public lands and outdoor recreation policy space relies on permanency, which aligns with the thoughtful approach of the visionaries, including Teddy Roosevelt, who initially had the foresight to protect these lands – not for an election cycle or a near-term window, but forever. Uncertainty around land designations or the programs they rely on has far reaching impacts, including several of which that pose a significant risk to local economies. Congress permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which rose the rollercoaster of temporary authorizations, highlights that meaningful and permanent policies are possible, but the ability for policymakers to prioritize the long-term over the near-term is increasingly rare and equally problematic for advancing strong policies and this creates risk for public lands and outdoor recreation.

Funding Shortfalls: Similar to many other sectors, public lands and outdoor recreation faces funding shortfalls that are unlikely to be overcome without innovative and bipartisan solutions that reach beyond annual appropriations. The $12 billion maintenance backlog on public lands exemplifies this challenge, especially as those needs grow dramatically each year. Inaction makes the problems worse and more expensive over the long-term. Without new solutions, funding has the potential to be the one of the most significant risks to public lands and outdoor recreation on the horizon.

Every policy space faces some risk, regardless of how positive recent trends may be. For public lands and outdoor recreation policy, stakeholders and policymakers must work to de-risk the policy space. In doing so, they should focus on bipartisanship, prioritize policy permanency, and identify innovative funding solutions. A good place to start is around permit streamlining, closing the gap on maintenance backlog, and providing more access for everyone to the outdoors.