This Historic Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act: Five Reasons it Matters

Charles Cooper

The Great American Outdoors Act is a historic win for public lands and reflects the best of our legislative process. In some sense, it has both united the Congress as well as those that seek to influence it.

Within the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and all the political noise around the 2020 election, the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (now headed to the President’s desk for signature) probably will not get the attention it deserves. However, this bill will line the pages of history books down the road as a historic win for public lands, and a massive and successful legislative effort by Congress.
Here are five reasons this legislation matters and will have long-term impacts on policy discussions around the outdoors:
GAOA Delivers A Major Policy Win for the Outdoors: It is tough to identify when such a significant piece of legislation for public lands passed through Congress in the past, but it may have been in 1965 when the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created. The Great American Outdoors Act will permanently provide $900 million annually to the LWCF, a funding rollercoaster that has been anything but consistent. Additionally, the bill will dedicate $9.5 billion over the next five years to the deferred maintenance backlog, which continues to be a massive and growing threat to public lands and waters, as well as the visitor experience. In today’s terms, these funding levels may seem small, but consider the fact that it wasn’t long ago that Congress couldn’t come to an agreement to even reauthorize the LWCF and efforts thus far to deal with the maintenance backlog has only been to watch it grow. By any standard, this is a historic win.
GAOA Provides A Significant Political Win for Everyone: Voters love public lands and outdoor recreation. It is not surprising that policymakers on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol will be taking a long and loud victory lap when the Great American Outdoors Act is signed into law. Campaigns will appropriately attach themselves to this victory and it represents one of those rare opportunities to celebrate both a policy and political win for Republicans and Democrats at the same time.
GAOA Reaches Beyond Just Public Lands Policy: The country is in the middle of an important national discussion around equity and inclusion. Not surprisingly, the underserved communities that lack basic infrastructure often lack the access to quality outdoor spaces. The LWCF Stateside Assistance Grants will create more local outdoor recreation opportunities and help to remove existing barriers (distance, expense, etc.) that separates much of America from quality green spaces. In part, the Great American Outdoors Act is an equity bill and will create more equity in access to quality parks and recreation.
GAOA Responds to a Growing Demand for Outdoor Recreation: The COVID-19 pandemic has literally brought people into the outdoors, seeking the health and wellness benefits that come with outdoor recreation. In some sense, America is rediscovering the outdoors and doing so at unprecedented rates. Everyone is looking for ways to escape from the daily anxieties that this pandemic has brought over the last few months and many of us are finding that escape in local parks and on nearby trails. It represents a shift towards the outdoors that will not subside when the pandemic ends. The Great American Outdoors Act will help meet this trend with well-funded outdoor infrastructure that can better meet the growing demand for outdoor recreation.
GAOA Has Become a Unifying Force: Washington D.C. is full of disagreement. The 25% approval rating Congress currently has is, in part, a reflection that people don’t have confidence that Congress can come together around solutions to our nation’s most pressing challenges. The Great American Outdoors Act may be an anomaly, but it certainly reflects the best of our legislative process. Not only did Republicans and Democrats jointly champion this bill, but all sectors within the outdoor advocacy community (the outdoor industry, hunters and anglers, active transportation advocates, the motorized community, and conservation groups) rallied enormous grassroots support to help push this over the finish line. In some sense, it has both united the Congress as well as those that seek to influence it.

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