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The Great American Outdoors Act was, Indeed, Great - Now, What’s Next?

Posted by jmoschella at Aug 18, 2020 03:04 PM |

The outdoor recreation world is buzzing after the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed and was signed by the president recently. With billions of additional dollars now invested in public lands, we've all been wondering: What’s next? Where might these investments go? And how might the government take on the hefty task of addressing their maintenance backlogs?

The outdoor recreation world is buzzing after the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed and was signed by the president recently. A show of bipartisan partnership and leadership from Washington’s congressional delegation helped make the critical bill for public lands a reality. 

The act commits $900 million in annual permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and another $1.9 billion annually (for up to five years) for federal land management agencies to address their deferred maintenance backlogs. 

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Projects at Mt. Rainier National Park could benefit from deferred maintenance funding in the Great American Outdoors Act. Photo by Randall Hodges.

While that investment truly is great, the question that’s on many of our minds is, “what’s next?” Where might these investments go? And how might the government take on the hefty task of addressing their maintenance backlogs? 

WHERE WILL THE MONEY GO? 

There are two major pieces to this legislation — permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and money for deferred maintenance. Each piece operates differently, so the ways money from the programs trickles into public lands are different. 

LWCF has been the nation’s most successful conservation and recreation program, running for more than 50 years. The program works by earmarking a portion of revenues from offshore drilling for natural resources conservation and outdoor recreation programs. The money provides matching grants to supplement local government and community funding. LWCF has allocated nearly $699 million to Washington state, protecting places such as Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and the Columbia River Gorge. 

For deferred maintenance, GAOA splits the funding as percentages between five different federal land management agencies: the National Parks Service (70%), the Forest Service (15%), the Bureau of Land Management (5%), the Fish and Wildlife Service (5%) and the Bureau of Indian Education (5%). With full funding of deferred maintenance, those splits would mean that annually, an agency like the Forest Service could receive up to $285 million in funding. 

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There will be more funding available for trail maintenance projects on Forest Service lands. Photo of WTA volunteer at Corral Pass by Owen Vogeli.

WHAT PROJECTS WILL GET WORKED ON? 

Knowing exactly what projects, lands or areas might get worked on with this funding is a much harder question to answer. 

The LWCF already has a process in place for how it funds projects, so we can expect that the permanent funding will continue to support the conservation and acquisition of public lands for years to come. 

To address the maintenance backlog, the bill outlines some steps that agencies will have to take. First, the funding cannot be used for land acquisition, or for work that takes place every year or for any bonuses for employees carrying out this work. 

Next, agencies must submit a list of projects to be funded for the next year to the Congress, where they will be reviewed by relevant committees that deal with natural resources and financial appropriations. Projects must be, as of the date of the submission of the list, “ready to be implemented.”  The president then submits a list of projects to be funded along with the annual budget of the United States, with detailed description of each project and estimated expenditures. 

WHAT DO WE DO NOW, THEN? 

The Great American Outdoors Act gives a 90-day period, starting the day the bill was signed, for a list of priority deferred maintenance projects to be submitted to Congress. Over the next few months, agency partners will work closely with stakeholders to develop a process for submitting the project lists to Congress. 

Agencies will work with their staff to identify projects that might qualify for this work. Projects may be ready to see work as soon as they are funded or could require further public engagement processes. 

Of course, individual agencies and forests will have a massive task on their hands. Many agencies will be starting this work during the busy summer season when staffing is already stretched thin due to funding and coronavirus concerns.

WTA has long collaborated with our agency partners to help develop and work on projects like this. As funding from GAOA begins to trickle in, WTA will continue to advocate for projects that build on our work to make trails for everyone, forever.

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