With Cory Gardner leading the charge, Senate takes up Great American Outdoors Act
Colorado senators are leading a congressional push to pass landmark conservation legislation that would deploy $9.5 billion to maintain overrun national parks and permanently direct $900 million a year for outdoor recreation on public lands.
President Donald Trump has said he will sign this Great American Outdoors Act if lawmakers get it to his desk. Senators this week took up the issue, aiming for a vote next Tuesday, and around 200 House members have said they’ll support similar legislation.
Conservationists for decades have prioritized these measures as crucial steps to ensure healthy public lands, increasingly seen as essential for a booming recreation industry that has become an economic mainstay, especially in Colorado and the West.
Congress has failed to provide the full $900 million a year for land acquisition and other spending that the 1965 Land and Water Conservation Act requires. Lawmakers have approved spending between $255 million and $450 million a year since 2008 and only twice in 55 years provided the full $900 million.
National Park Service officials have estimated deferred maintenance as land and facilities deteriorate will cost more than $20 billion.
“We’ve been trying for decades to get this done. Now we have an historic window to actually achieve it. This is a moment where we need to capitalize to get this great achievement accomplished,” Sen. Cory Gardner said in an interview Tuesday.
On March 3, Gardner, of Yuma, went to the White House and, in a discussion with Trump, showed a photo he’d taken on his iPhone of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. Trump said it was beautiful. Gardner also said he pointed to a portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt, a leading conservationist, in suggesting that Trumpsupport could lead to a major achievement. He said Trump gazed up at the portrait and said he would sign the legislation.
Sen. Michael Bennet of Denver is one of some 60 Senate sponsors of the Great American Outdoors Act but is proposing amending it to include the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, which would protect about 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, establishing new wilderness and recreation opportunities.
“This week, we have an opportunity to secure new protections for public lands in Colorado that were left out of the public lands bill Congress passed last year,” Bennet said, urging colleagues to incorporate the CORE Act “or to quickly pass” it on its own.
Gardner said, regarding the amendment, that Bennet “may try to get a vote on that. That is his bill. The GAOA certainly will help the CORE Act.”
A June 3 letter to congressional leaders from six former Department of Interior secretaries, including Ken Salazar (2009-2013) and Gale Norton (2001-2006) of Colorado, urged swift passage of the GAOA “without any amendments.”
This push to provide permanent full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and step up public lands maintenance reflects years of wrangling in Congress to support outdoors recreation on public land.
The Land and Water Conservation Act, passed in 1965, says money should go to federal agencies to acquire land and to states for acquisition of land and waters and to develop recreation facilities.
The Great American Outdoors Act combines two previous bills that each had strong majority bipartisan support. One part would provide full and permanent funding of $900 million each year, the amount the fund is authorized to receive, from offshore oil and gas revenues – not tax dollars. The other aims for parks restoration by investing $1.9 billion annually for the next five years to maintain land managed by the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Land Management.
Conservation groups have welcomed the bill.
“This will be a remarkable gift for the future and also is important for the present. It’s going to put up to 100,000 people to work each year fixing our national parks,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation group with 6 million members.
Beyond national parks and forests, the congressional spending each year could help cities such as Denver and Missoula, where urban votersare pushing leaders to acquire more land for parks and other open space.
“Our parks and open space set-asides need to grow with our population. We’ve seen, during the pandemic, the importance of the ability to be safely outside in parks,” Stone-Manning said.
“Denver could identify property that is worth acquiring and use Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars to help acquire it,” she said. “Humans have to have access to nature for our health, and we have a long-term need to protect our larger landscapes.”
By: Bruce Finley
Next Article Previous Article