On Aug. 4, President Trump signed the most consequential land conservation legislation in 40 years.
The historic measure, titled the “Great American Outdoors Act,” pumps billions of dollars into long-neglected repairs and upgrades at our national parks.
It’s an unlikely success story: bipartisan support in our deeply polarized Congress for an environmental initiative to which the Trump administration had initial hostility.
Hailing its passage, Trump said “there hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect.”
Environmentalist cheered it as “a conservationist’s dream.” Trump achieved what Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama could not.
The “Great American Outdoors Act” while massive in scope, doesn’t do anything new — it’s a do-over for past neglect — a no-brainer.
The new law makes two landmark changes.
First, it provides $9.5 billion over the next five years to repair roads, restroom, trails and campgrounds at America’s 419 national parks — from Yosemite to Zion to the Everglades — and at other public lands where facilities have fallen into disrepair after years of neglect and funding shortfalls.
For Nevadans that means more financial resources for Great Basin National Park in White Pine County; Death Valley National Park (located within California and Nevada); Lake Mead National Recreation Area (shared with Arizona); and, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument near Las Vegas.
Second and more lasting, the bill would guarantee $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund in perpetuity. Congress created the fund in 1964, requiring up to $900 million a year in offshore oil revenues go to buy new park land and maintain local parks.
Over the past 56 years, the fund has become the most important tool for preserving public lands in the United States. It has helped protect 7 million acres, from the Redwood National Park in California to Cape Cod National Seashore.
The fund helped complete the Appalachian Trail. It bought private tracts within Alaska’s Denali National Park and within some of America’s crown jewels parks — Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.
The money also has funded state grants to build 40,000 swimming pools, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, fishing piers and jogging trails. Among those in Nevada — public trails and beaches at Lake Tahoe.
Over the years, instead of providing $900 million as the law intended, the money has been shifted to other uses. The new law requires the full $900 million to be spent every year on parks.
The unusual show of bipartisanship that led to enacting this legislation is attributed to the political and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The national parks are central to the economies of Western states. But communities surrounding these parks are now struggling and jobs related to tourism lost. The GAOA is expected to create more than 108,000 new jobs to repair park infrastructure.
The pandemic has also led Americans to rediscover the outdoors. The national parks not only provide economic benefits but also health and enjoyment.
The remarkable bipartisan passage of the seminal Great American Outdoors Act went underreported in the media. It cleared the Senate by a vote of 73-25 and the House by 310-107, with nearly all Democrats and about half of the Republicans in favor.
Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colorado), Steve Daines (Montana), Martha McSally (Arizona) and Susan Collins (Maine) — in close re-election campaigns — saw the measure as a major accomplishment.
But in a rarity in politics, Democrats and environmental groups are not faulting these Republicans for seeking credit.
“However it came about, there is not a Democrat backing away from the bill thinking it might help the chances of a Republican getting re-elected,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a bill co-sponsor, told the Washington Examiner.
President Reagan famously observed: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
That’s wisdom for both parties to heed.
Jim Hartman is an attorney in Genoa. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.