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What The Great American Outdoors Act Will Mean For Public Lands In Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park

President Donald Trump has signed the Great American Outdoors Act. The act, which was co-sponsored by Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, secures funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and allocates nearly $3 billion to help maintain the national parks.

Courtney Schultz, director of the Public Lands Policy Group and associate professor of Natural Resource Policy at Colorado State University, joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to discuss the legislation’s impact.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Walk us through some of the key pieces of this bill, starting with the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). What is it and how is the fund used?

Courtney Schultz: The LWCF started in 1965, and it basically takes money coming into the federal government, primarily from offshore oil and gas revenue, and puts it into this fund can be used for conservation purposes. About 40% of that fund can be used for the state program, that basically allocates money to the states so they can acquire state parks and other kinds of public lands. They can also use it for creating outdoor recreation opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas, through a competitive grants program. So the whole point of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is to put money toward recreation and access for recreation.

So, there’s the state program but then there’s also money that can go to federal land management agencies like the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies. It basically gives money to those agencies to acquire access to public lands also. That can mean purchasing lands, or that can mean creating conservation easements on lands to improve access for recreation on those federal public lands, as well. The LWCF allocated up to $900 million to go toward these purposes, but historically, Congress hasn’t actually appropriated that money, so we haven’t actually gotten it.

So, what’s really exciting about the Great American Outdoors Act is that it says, permanently, there is going to be $900 million that’s going to go into this fund and actually get spent for these conservation purposes. It brings the LWCF up to full funding and makes it mandatory that that money’s going to get spent every year.

The bill also allocated billions of dollars for maintenance for the National Park Service. What’s the impact of that?

The other thing the act does, is create this National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund. This is separate from the permanent, full funding for the LWCF, but it’s also going to take money that comes in from offshore oil and gas revenue and it’s going to allocate up to $1.9 billion a year for the next five years to go into this fund. And this is really for deferred maintenance needs on our federal public lands.

The Park Service, for example — just one of our federal land management agencies — has about a $13 billion deferred maintenance tab that they need to update all of these recreation facilities and roads in the national parks. Rocky Mountain National Park alone says they have $84 million in these deferred maintenance needs.

So this fund is basically going to address that backlog of deferred maintenance on national parks, our wildlife refuges, our national forests. It’s primarily going to go to the National Parks System and will essentially cut in half that deferred maintenance backlog. That’s a huge deal because that’s been sitting around for years and years, and what this fund does is essentially a bipartisan commitment to addressing that maintenance and updating facilities — I mean, it’s everything, it’s campgrounds, bathrooms, visitor facilities, electrical needs, roads, amphitheaters, all of these things that need maintenance and updating to improve recreation access and the quality of visitation in these national parks.

It feels like that is such an important priority now, with one of the things people are safely allowed to do right now is get out and recreate outdoors. What will be the overall impact for Colorado from this legislation?

Colorado alone has about half a billion dollars of deferred maintenance just on our national parks and national forests, so for this money to come into the state and allow us to update our roads and facilities is going to be a huge deal, not only because it’s going to improve our own access to recreation, but also because it’s a big driver of job creation.

So, for these millions of dollars that come in, it creates quite a number of jobs. I think estimates from the National Park Service are that recreation is responsible for over 5% of our jobs in the state, that recreation brings in over $11 billion annually into the state — that was last year. And like you’re saying, I think with the pandemic, people are realizing that this access to recreation is more important than ever.

So, this is going to be really important for us, both because it’s such a big (economic) driver in our state, but also because it’s a big part of our way of life in Colorado.

Critics of the bill point to the fact that money for the LWCF comes from the oil and gas industry. Some environmentalists are criticizing the act for taking money from an industry that contributes to climate change, and using it for conservation…

That’s an interesting point. And I would say first that there’s quite a lot of bipartisan enthusiasm for this. I’ve really spent a lot of time talking with conservationists from both parties, and across the spectrum, who are excited about this because it shows that investment in our public lands. And it’s true that this money is coming from fossil fuel development, and I think some people are critical that we’re then investing that in conservation.

I think one way to think about this is that the choice right now wasn’t, you know, “Do we end fossil fuel leasing, or do we invest in conservation?” This is money that is coming in – and we can decide to earmark it for conservation, or not. And that’s something we decided to do as a nation back in 1965, is say, “If we’re going to be developing these oil and gas resources, let’s actually dedicate some of the money that’s coming in from that to some other conservation purposes and make sure it’s there.”

But nothing precludes us from transitioning to other sources of funding in the future, as we move away from fossil fuel development, which we know we absolutely have to do to address climate change.

So, it’s an interesting issue, and I think there’s people who view this on different ends of the spectrum, but I think for the most part, people are pretty excited that we’re saying “Okay, this money’s already coming in to the government — let’s make sure we dedicate it to conservation and address some of these funding backlogs, because funding for our federal land management agencies and for conservation has largely gone down over time."

So this I think is showing a bi-partisan commitment to upping that funding and really investing in our public lands so that they are maintained well, so that we have access to them, and so that they generate revenue for the states, particularly the states in the West where they take up so much of the land base.

Where does this bill stand in terms of historic public lands policy in the U.S.?

This is a really important bill in our history that has dedicated money to recreation and to maintaining access.

I think one thing that’s really important in terms of seeing it in historical context right now is that there’s been quite a bit of talk — really since the 80s, but it’s resurged over the last decade — of potentially divesting our public lands, or selling them, or giving them to the states, so one thing that’s important about this is that it represents that bi-partisan commitment to public lands and to funding them so that they can be maintained, and so that they can support visitation and local economy.

Another thing that I think is interesting about this moment in history and the current civil rights movement, is that there’s a lot of emphasis being placed on environmental justice, and climate justice, and making sure that our public lands are really accessible to a wide variety of visitors, that they’re inclusive to all people in the United States, that they tell an inclusive history about their past.

So I think this is a really critical thing that we’re going to need to think about going forward is how do we tell that honest and inclusive history about our public lands, and really make those places and the interpretation of those places really representative of the diversity in our nation, and really welcoming to all visitors.

This conversation is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Aug. 4. You can find the full episode here.