Inside the Outdoors: Sportsmen, outdoor devotees score major, if unexpected, legislative win
The Act makes available almost $3 billion annually to be spent on improvements and maintenance at national wildlife refuges and forests, national parks and recreation areas, on trails and campground facilities, upgrading previously-acquired wild lands for public use, and providing public access to lakes and rivers.
With the signature of President Trump on Tuesday of last week, the Great American Outdoors Act of 2020 became law, a legislative package that some are calling the most significant piece of conservation legislation in a half century. The average “man-on-the-street” may have been unaware of this, considering the focus of our nation on the coronavirus pandemic in general, and pending legislation to provide citizens and businesses more financial relief in particular.
But while coronavirus relief has stalled in stalemate, the Great American Outdoors Act sailed through Congress. Regardless of who was paying attention before, “the Act” is widely seen as a crowd pleaser in terms of the benefits envisioned for a broad swath of outdoor interests. The Act makes available almost $3 billion annually to be spent on improvements and maintenance at national wildlife refuges and forests, national parks and recreation areas, on trails and campground facilities, upgrading previously-acquired wild lands for public use, and providing public access to lakes and rivers. Also included are funds to protect historic and cultural sites, as well as unique natural landscapes.
Key to accomplishing these things is financing for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was established by Congress in 1964. This program uses earnings from private industry lease payments to the federal government for offshore oil and natural gas extraction—sites not owned by the firms that extract these valuable resources. As a result, the conservation benefits of the LWCF have not been financed with individual taxpayers’ dollars, but by industries that profit from oil and gas exploration at sites that technically belong to all U.S. citizens.
The history of funding LWCF since 1964 has been hit-and-miss. Only once before has the LWCF been funded at the maximum level that was authorized in 1964. Instead, much of that potential conservation funding has been diverted for other purposes, reflecting the fact that conservation has been regarded by some lawmakers as a luxury, rather than a priority.
Still, Minnesota—and those who actively avail themselves of our many and varied outdoor recreation opportunities—have benefitted over the course of the past 56 years. These benefits have included expenditures for Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. An example of expected impacts of the Act just signed into law, is development of historic sites within Voyageurs National Park. The LWCF also has partnership dimensions that fund conservation activities on private lands; fortunate, since far more land is in private ownership than is owned by the public.
An indicator of how significant for conservation the Act may prove to be is the enthusiasm with which its enactment has been received by some of the most respected conservation-focused groups in the nation. The list of organizations that have expressed joy in its enactment represent a who’s who of national sportsmen’s and environmental organizations. Some are what might be called “hard core” sportsmen’s groups, others might be identified more as “nature” groups. Among those praising it are Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Audubon Society and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, to name just a few.
One possible reason this legislation may have taken many by surprise—apart from our focus on the coronavirus pandemic—is the policy turnabout it represents. Over the past three years, the country has seen new regulations issued to re-interpret and weaken enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act, efforts to open up more federal wild lands to oil and natural gas exploration, and a parade of proposed removals of animals and plants from the Endangered Species List. The current administration has not advocated full funding in any of its past budgets.
Some speculate that lawmakers in Congress were looking for a popular, headline-making accomplishment in this important election year. Two such lawmakers, Senate Republicans from Montana and Colorado—who are believed to be in very tight reelection races—were the primary Senate sponsors. The conservation-related projects this legislation will finance have been estimated to create as many as 100,000 jobs.
Still, proving that politicians are never far-removed from political behavior, only Republican senators were present at the bill’s signing ceremony at the White House, even though the only “no” votes cast in the Senate—25, about half of their party’s 52—were cast by Republicans.
Yet, at the end of the day, regardless of any political gamesmanship that might have been attached to enactment of this legislation, its importance to wildlife and wild places—and those of us who enjoy and use them—will overshadow the public relations games. It’s still a very big win.