(Update: The U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act on June 17, 2020 in a 73-25 vote. The legislation now moves the U.S. House of Representatives for consideration.)
Sometime in the next week, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on legislation that would fully fund important conservation work across all 50 states. As America turns to nature to recreate and find relief during this global pandemic, bipartisan support in Congress has grown for legislation that would benefit conservation, the economy, and nature-lovers.
With full funding, the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) program can restore natural landscapes, enhance recreation, and protect wildlife while creating jobs and driving investment in local communities. In addition, it will promote conservation projects that protect birds like the Roseate Spoonbill, Bald Eagle, Golden-winged Warbler, and Brandt’s Cormorant.
At no additional cost to taxpayers, the legislation being considered by the Senate, the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422), would provide permanent, mandatory funding for LWCF at the authorized amount of $900 million annually. The program will help national parks, local parks, public lands, and athletic fields in every county across the country.
In addition, the bill creates a new fund ($1.9 billion annually for five years) to address deferred maintenance projects at the National Park Service, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. These public lands and spaces provide critical bird habitat, protect endangered species, support natural climate solutions, and connect people with birds across the country, but have struggled to keep up with repairs for buildings and infrastructure even as visitation has increased.
With a companion bill now introduced in the House (H.R. 7092), we are hopeful to see some progress on these funding needs this year. In addition, as Congress continues to address the ongoing public health crisis and promote economic recovery efforts, future economic relief bills should include efforts to protect natural spaces, including addressing our public lands maintenance backlog.
Congress needs to pass job-creating investments that will increase the resiliency and sustainability of critical infrastructure systems and focus on green and nature-based solutions for restoring watersheds and ecosystems. Helping workers remain in current jobs, providing new jobs, and encouraging economic recovery are critical to the country overcoming crises, including the ongoing pandemic, but also future challenges exacerbated by climate change.
Looking to the future, our nation’s public lands also support the most resilient ecosystems in the face of a changing climate. They capture and store climate-warming emissions, provide important habitats for birds and other wildlife, and enhance flood protection for coastal and riverine communities that are facing both near-term threats from COVID-19 and spring flooding as well as longer-term threats from climate change.
Public lands also improve water quality for impaired water bodies and increase resilience in drought-stricken communities. Reinvesting in public lands, forests, and parks across the country, and supporting the stewardship of healthy ecosystems contained in them, also creates a cascade of economic benefits through ecotourism and outdoor recreation, and the creation of new jobs in local communities.