August 4, 2020

The Road to the Great American Outdoors Act: Now Law

The Great American Outdoors Act is now law.

For many years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in collaboration with our local, state, and national partners have successfully made the case that establishing a dedicated fund for National Park Service (NPS) deferred maintenance needs and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will will provide essential support to preserve America’s historic places for generations to come. This work was further supported by more than 850 preservation, business, outdoor, tourism, conservation, recreation and hunting groups who sent a letter to Congress urging the passage of this Act. And in July, six former Secretaries of the Interior endorsed the GAOA and joined the chorus of voices supporting the landmark bill.

This summer, the Great American Outdoors Act passed the Senate (73-25) and House of Representatives (310-107) with strong bipartisan votes and many congressional champions and supporters helped make this happen.

It is the single greatest investment in protecting public lands in this generation.

If we look at the numbers, National Trust advocacy produced:

  • 22 case studies highlighting issues such as the contributions of HOPE Crew (PDF) and historic leasing (PDF) to reducing the deferred maintenance backlog;
  • 3 community events in Virginia, Ohio, and Louisiana highlighting the importance of LWCF;
  • 363 signatures on letters to House and Senate committees by preservation organizations, battlefield preservation organizations, and Main Streets, in support of a deferred maintenance bill;
  • Submissions of testimony to a dozen congressional hearings and markup sessions;
  • 30 op-eds and letters to the editor and over 10 radio interviews in supporting deferred maintenance legislation; and
  • 5 lobby days with 47 preservation advocates from 16 states traveling to Washington DC for Hill meetings that highlighted repair needs at NPS sites in their communities.

Rock art shown at Quail Point at Great Bend of the Gila in Arizona. Important lands within this place of great cultural heritage have been protected by funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which received full and permanent funding as part of the Great American Outdoors Act. | Credit: Andy Laurenzi, Archaeology Southwest

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge our champions on the Hill (make sure to send along your own thank you!). Along with decades of advocacy by the LWCF coalition to secure full and permanent funding for LWCF, in the last four years, the National Trust has worked closely with partners and champions in Congress on four different versions of legislation addressing deferred maintenance of the NPS and other federal agencies. The various bills culminated in the combining of two major policy issues with the Great American Outdoors Act – introduced by Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) in the Senate, and in the House by Representative Joe Cunningham (D-SC) and 11 other bipartisan sponsors. In just five months, the two Great American Outdoors Act bills secured 60 Senate and 254 House sponsors and cosponsors, along with the support of President Trump, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and others in Senate and House Leadership.

This landmark legislation will invest up to $9.5 billion to repair historic and other assets of the National Park Service and other federal agencies. The bill also fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million annually. The once-in-a-generation investments from this bill will significantly benefit our nation’s historic and cultural resources by providing jobs, boosting economic activity, and preserving iconic historic places.

In 2002, Richard Moe, then President of the National Trust wrote, as an introduction to an issue of Forum Journal marking the issue of deferred maintenance in our national parks, that “While there is much that we all can do in the way of partnerships and creative problem solving, it should not be forgotten that our parks also need increased and sustained public funding to address the immense challenges they face, from transportation issues to monitoring the condition of fragile natural and cultural resources.”

It has been over eighteen years since he wrote those words—and it proves, once again that preservation success includes long term, sustained, collaborative action. There is much more work to be done, but today is a good day to celebrate this success.

For those interested in wonky details of the federal legislative process, the timing for House passage of the Great American Outdoors Act intersected with another historic moment. As part of procedural rules in Congress, the Senate used an unrelated House bill as the vehicle for passing the legislation in June. The vehicle was a piece of tax legislation introduced by the late Representative John Lewis and as the House debated and passed this landmark legislation, many members of Congress noted the connection between a piece of such a historic, far-reaching legislation and Representative John Lewis—a strong supporter of national parks and preserving our nation’s history. It is perhaps fitting that his name is enshrined as a part of the broader legacy in protecting and supporting our full heritage in the years to come.

Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content and Pam Bowman is the director of public lands at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

By: Priya Chhaya and Pam Bowman

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