Masked Biologist: The Great American Outdoors Act

Aug 17, 2020

We all have cause to celebrate, thanks to our elected officials in Washington. The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law, and the Masked Biologist takes a first glimpse at it in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Finally some good news to come out of Washington, D.C. It can be difficult sometimes to stomach the news generated in the political realm, especially when the stakes are high, opposing sides cannot come to agreement, and the public is stuck in the middle. This happens far too often under normal circumstances, and our current circumstances are far from normal. So imagine my delight and surprise when I heard that President Trump signed H.R. 1957 into law on August 4, and was activated into Public Law on August 9, 2020.

HR 1957, Public Law #116-152 is officially named The Great American Outdoors Act. According to Congress.gov, this bill establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands. For the next 4 years, there shall be deposited into the fund an amount equal to 50% of all federal revenues from the development of oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy on federal lands and waters. Deposited amounts must not exceed $1.9 billion for any fiscal year.

The fund must be used for priority deferred maintenance projects in specified systems that are administered by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Additionally, the bill makes funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanent. The President shall annually report to Congress specified details regarding the allocation of funds to the LWCF.

That this law passed both the house and the senate, then got signed into law by the President is simply stunning to me. This is an exceptionally large financial allocation to our public land resources, and it was supported by the majority of elected officials in both parties.

The LWCF was first authorized by Congress in 1964. It was funded at that time using zero tax dollars, drawing strictly on receipts from offshore oil and gas leases, and provided funds to state and local governments as well as federal projects. Since that time, around $41 billion has moved through the LWCF. Not all of that went to conservation, though—in the last 55 years, there was close to $20 billion spent on about 40,000 projects across the country. The problem was, the fund was not permanent, so it would periodically come up for a vote to renew. In 2019, it was made permanent, but allocation stayed with Congress, which historically diverted close to half of those oil and gas receipts to cover unrelated spending needs. This newest law dedicates the intended full funding amount, $900 million annually, to go directly to LWCF projects. This is big news. You may not know it, but state and federal natural resource agencies right here in Wisconsin have built an outstanding management legacy in part leaning on those funds.

But that is just the second part of this law. The first is the establishment of the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration fund to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands. This is a greatly needed shot in the arm for our federal lands, like the Chequamegon-Nicolet Forest here in Wisconsin. While I haven’t yet heard what projects might be in the hopper for these funds, I know there are some excellent facilities here in the Northwoods that are likely to benefit over the next four years. So celebrate with me, fellow wildlife enthusiasts. Even though our nation may be struggling and divided on several fronts, it would seem one area we can still agree on is that our natural resources, our public lands, and our shared recreation facilities are a priority and as such should be funded in no small measure by receipts generated by the development of energy resources we all use.

Image: Voyageurs National Park - MN