Great American Outdoors Act: A Western Perspective

Great American Outdoors Act: A Western Perspective

On August 4, the president signed into law the largest conservation legislation in a generation, the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). Despite the polarization of Congress, the legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House (310-107) and the Senate (73-25). The impacts of the act are twofold. One, it establishes a National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund that will provide up to $9.5 billion over the next five years to address the maintenance backlog at national parks and on other federal lands (National Forests are slated to receive 15% of the funds). Two, it permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at up to $900 million per year.

Established in 1964, the LWCF is funded by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas companies drilling in federal waters. This landmark conservation program was authorized at $900 million, but Congress has rarely appropriated more than half that amount. The purpose of the LWCF is funding the USDA Forest Service (Forest Service), National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management to either directly purchase or provide grants to state and local governments to acquire land for conservation. While the LWCF has historically enjoyed broad bipartisan support, until it was permanently authorized in 2019 it was subject to a regular cycle of expiration and uncertain renewal. Permanent funding for the LWCF secures a better, and more stable, future for public access to the outdoors.

Permanent funding for the LWCF has been an issue in Washington, DC for decades, through at least five presidents, nine secretaries of the interior, and ten secretaries of agriculture. The recent passage of the GAOA is indicative of the times. Visitors to National Parks in 2019 contributed more than $40 billion to the US economy and supported 340,500 jobs. As the COVID-19 pandemic plunged much of the country into quarantine, spending at National Parks and in nearby towns, most of which are located in the West, plummeted. Communities in western states that rely on tourism have found themselves in an unprecedented economic struggle, with steep declines in spending and tourism-related job losses. As the GAOA addresses the maintenance backlog on federal lands, it is expected to create 108,000 jobs. The pandemic has also raised public consciousness of the value of public lands and the strain of overuse on existing infrastructure. Thanks to dozens of organizations, from The Nature Conservancy to the Outdoor Alliance, the pressure to address the maintenance backlog on federal lands and permanently fund the LWCF has been building for years, and the pandemic provided an opportune moment to finally address these issues.

The GAOA will do more for the West than just stem the job losses related to tourism and replace them with infrastructure-related employment. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation is responsible for $887 billion in consumer spending, supports 7.6 million jobs, and provides $125 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue every year. A recent economic analysis found for every $1 million invested in the LWCF, between 17 and 30 jobs could be supported. The acquisition of land for public recreation is an obvious investment with great economic returns. The permanent funding of the LWCF will support these returns as well as enhance a widely-utilized program across the West, the Forest Legacy Program (FLP). 

475 million acres of forest land in the United States are privately owned. Funded by the LWCF, the FLP is a response to the problem of land-use change on these acres. As private forests are faced with fragmentation and conversion to non-forest uses, the public risks losing many of their benefits, including access to recreation, clean water, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration. The FLP is a conservation program that protects privately owned forest lands through conservation easements and land purchases, administered in partnership between the Forest Service and state agencies. Regardless of whether the land is directly acquired or specific development rights are sold, the FLP ensures that the land remains forested and is managed for public benefit in perpetuity. Created in 1990, the FLP has since conserved almost three million acres in all fifty states and several territories. 

In the western United States, the FLP has supported 127 projects in 17 states and island territories with over 730,000 acres of forest land protected as a result. These benefits of these projects range from watershed protection in support of the shellfish industry in Washington State’s Puget Sound and the creation of massive wildlife corridors for threatened and endangered species in Montana to the protection of Hawaii's state mammal, the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, and the preservation of important viewsheds in Nevada. Aside from the intrinsic value of wildlife and habitat conservation, the numbers bear out the FLP’s value to local economies. Annual recreation spending on FLP-conserved land in Northern Idaho and Western Montana is estimated at nearly $3 million per year, and the annual volume of timber harvested in the same area is estimated at 73,248 CCF, with 98.5% processed in the region. The FLP contributes significantly to the rural communities and local economies dependent on both timber harvesting and recreational forest lands in the West. By promoting public access and recreational use hand-in-hand with keeping working forests working, the FLP fully leverages the economic benefits of forest lands. Maintaining these benefits in perpetuity makes the FLP one of the most effective conservation programs being implemented today. With the permanent funding of the LWCF, the FLP is now positioned to expand its impact even further.

The GAOA has been described as a “unicorn,” a once-in-a-lifetime legislative victory for the conservation movement. It implements two key funding bills for public lands. One focuses on the past and addresses the long overdue maintenance backlog on established federal lands while the other looks to the future and permanently secures increased access to public lands, including working forest lands and their myriad benefits in the West. 

The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, in cooperation with the Forest Service and state agencies, is producing a publication on FLP in the western United States, expected in June 2021.