The U.S. Senate voted decisively in favor on June 17 to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, bipartisan legislation that many outdoor groups are calling a once-in-a-generation chance to fund conservation, public land and access efforts in the country.
The Senate vote went 73-25 in favor of the bill. The Great American Outdoors Act would fully dedicate funds to the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually and fund maintenance backlogs on public lands and waters at $9.5 billion over five years.
The money will come from royalties from oil and gas extraction on federal lands and waters. The same companion bill will now go to the House of Representatives for a vote.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Pheasants Forever, and many other hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation and conservation groups encouraged their members in recent weeks to reach out to their senators and representatives in support of the bill.
“Today’s vote is a win for all Americans,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney said in a release. “We the people set the stage for investing in our shared lands and waters and the spirit of bipartisan compromise that led us to this moment, where we have a once in a generation legislative victory within our grasp.”
Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Steve Daines (R-MT), Mark Warner (D-VA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and 54 other cosponsors introduced the Great American Outdoors Act in March. The bill includes full, dedicated funding for LWCF starting in fiscal year 2021. Maintenance backlog funding in the bill totals $9.5 billion over five years broken down as follows:
70 percent for the National Park Service
15 percent for the U.S. Forest Service
5 percent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
5 percent for the Bureau of Land Management
5 percent for the Bureau of Indian Education
Minnesota democratic senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith were part of the 73 senators who supported the bill. In total, all 43 democratic senators who voted on the bill voted “yea,” while 28 republican senators voted “yea” and 25 voted “nay.” Independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine also voted "yea."
In a day and age when republicans and democrats cannot agree on much, matters of conservation and the outdoors can buck that trend.
Senators from both sides of the aisle lauded the Great American Outdoors Act as not only doing right by public lands and waters that all Americans can enjoy, but as an opportunity to help put people to work at an important time. Outdoor recreation contributes $778 billion in consumer spending and supports 5.2 million jobs nationally.
“From our lakes, to our park trails, to the Boundary Waters, Minnesotans take pride in our love of the outdoors,” Senator Klobuchar said in a statement on Wednesday’s vote. “I am proud of our bipartisan success in passing historic legislation that invests in our commitment to ensuring our nation’s trails, public lands, parks and open spaces remain protected and accessible for generations. The Great American Outdoors Act provides critical investments to create jobs and preserve natural resources for all Americans — from funding to maintain our national parks to investing in outdoor recreational opportunities, like our parks and trails, as well as permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is paid for out of offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. It was established in 1965 and has helped fund everything from public land acquisitions and national parks, to community parks, trails and ball fields felt on a more local level.
It has been historically underfunded, though, with money meant for the LWCF often going to other government programs. Outdoor and conservation groups have pushed to change that for years, so permanently funding the LWCF at $900 million annually would be a huge win for public lands and waters.
“Today we thank the senators who heeded the call to establish a legacy of conservation stewardship now and for future generations,” Tawney said. “This moment should not be overlooked. We now urge members of the House of Representatives to follow through on their promise and swiftly advance the Great American Outdoors Act to the president.”
In an election year, democrats and many republicans seem to agree that matters of the outdoors are important to Americans and also good for their political futures. We can help take advantage of this moment by contacting our legislators to make sure it passes a vote in the House of Representatives.