In a rare bipartisan vote, Congress sends billions to the national parks

Lawmakers commit to fixing roads and buildings on forests and grasslands, as well as putting $900 million a year toward land and water conservation.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Mount Moran looms above Oxbow Bend in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

A 40-year-old sewage system at the bottom of the Grand Canyon—built to protect the Colorado River from pollution—is in such disrepair that the national park this summer began limiting visitors to nearby campgrounds.

Leaks at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church National Historic Park, where Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor, have left crumbling plaster and stains on the ceiling. The primary electrical system at Fort Mason in Golden Gate National Recreation Area has been deemed unsafe.

From 50-year-old ranger housing in Yellowstone, to the decaying Arlington Memorial Bridge across Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River, to rundown trails in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, repair work in the country’s national parks and recreation areas has been delayed for decades as Congress avoided footing the multibillion-dollar maintenance bill.

But on Wednesday, lawmakers from both parties—bitterly divided over almost everything else—approved the largest infusion of cash since the 1950s for upkeep of the national park system.

Congress also agreed to pump billions of dollars into repair projects in federal forests, wildlife refuges, and grasslands. And lawmakers committed, for the first time, to set up a continuous stream of money to buy and conserve land across the country.

“I know I may be biased, but I think this is the most impactful legislation for parks and public lands in the United States in more than half a century,” says Marcia Argust, director of the Restore America’s Parks program at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s a game-changer.”

Protecting public lands

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives late Wednesday voted 310-107 to adopt the Great American Outdoors Act, just weeks after the Republican-led Senate approved a similar measure, 73-25. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly moved to undo environmental protections, had urged the House to pass this measure and is expected to sign it.

The act would, over five years, pump $6.65 billion into addressing the $11.9 billion backlog of maintenance projects across more than 400 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites. Another $2.9 billion would go to repair projects on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education.

While the legislation would only cover about half of the existing national park backlog, a transportation infrastructure proposal Congress is negotiating could inject up to $2 billion more for upgrades to national park system roads, bridges, and shuttle services.

Together, the two pieces of legislation would for the first time in decades address the National Park’s most pressing maintenance issues. The last time that much money was invested in park upkeep was between 1955 and 1965, when many visitor centers were constructed.

Meanwhile, the act also finally dedicates money every year to be spent from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund, established in 1965, was set up to encourage recreation and acquire more open space every year to add to the nation’s public lands. But that’s only part of its purpose. The fund also supplies grants to states that protect rare species and build or maintain ballfields, swimming pools, picnic areas, or natural areas in virtually every county in the country.

“LWCF is the front end of how some of our most popular public lands have been protected,” said Tom Cors, director of lands for The Nature Conservancy.

Over years, the fund has been tapped to conserve forests along New York’s Hudson River; buy development rights on wild timberland in northern Minnesota; acquire a ranch that provided fishing access to 70 miles of Oregon’s John Day River; help establish New Mexico’s Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge; and protect the entirety of Ute Mountain in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. It was even used to buy the property in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. It is now a national memorial.

But Congress over the past half century has only appropriated $19 billion of the $41 billion raised by the fund. The new act would earmark $900 million to be spent every year.

“It’s incredible to think about how much good this will do,” says Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association who has lobbied 11 years for these changes. “At a time when we’re dealing with climate change and inequities in communities around the country, where some don’t have access to open space, we will actually leave national parks in better shape for the next generation and still conserve new lands over time.”

Huge support

In the world of conservation, the Great American Outdoors Act is really two victories in one. Getting full financing for the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been the Holy Grail for conservation groups since at least the 1990s. And President George W. Bush had made eliminating the park maintenance backlog a part of his campaign platform in 2000.

Given Congress’s deep partisan divisions and Trump’s clear antagonism toward many environmental issues, how did this happen now? The answer, those involved say, is years of hard work by advocates who educated lawmakers of both parties, an alignment of personalities in high-profile positions, and some unusual political realities.

It helped that the issues are deeply popular with the public. The Great American Outdoors Act was supported by hunters and anglers, environmental groups and timber companies, the Hispanic Federation and the American Battlefield Trust, along with hundreds of other organizations, from activist clothing maker Patagonia to local chambers of commerce.

A letter in support was signed by every Republican and Democratic Interior secretary since Bruce Babbitt, who was appointed in 1993 to run the department that oversees the National Park Service.

At the same time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, each with ailing park properties in their regions, favored the legislation, as did the chairs of the chambers’ two committees overseeing the proposals: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona.

In addition, early this year, two Republican senators facing tough re-election challenges in states where public lands are important approached Trump.

According to an account in The Denver Post, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana met Trump in the White House in March. Gardner showed the president an iPhone shot of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. As Gardner spoke of the economic benefits of outdoor recreation, Gardner told The Post, the president said, “This would be the biggest (conservation) victory since Teddy Roosevelt and beyond.” The president, who had previously proposed cutting funding for conservation, took to Twitter to ask Congress to bring him a bill.

Meanwhile, with people isolated by the coronavirus pandemic and the economy struggling, many lawmakers saw a dual opportunity—put people to work by tackling infrastructure projects while creating opportunities to get them outside.

“It’s an incredible green spark of economic stimulus,” Cors says. “People are seeking the outdoors during the pandemic to reflect, to heal, and gather their wits. We know that outdoor recreation, done safely, and at a distance, brings in tremendous amounts of economic activity. Plus there are jobs directly and indirectly produced.”

No shortage of projects

It’s too soon to say precisely how any of the money would be spent. But the list of potential projects—both for park maintenance and for expanding public lands—is long.

Yosemite National Park needs several million dollars in repairs to its wastewater plant. Kalaupapa National Historic Park in Hawaii needs $3 million in electrical system upgrades.

One purpose of the fund is to buy private inholdings surrounded by parks to preserve them. Adoption of the Great American Outdoors Act might eventually help acquire: a 470-acre parcel within Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park; properties within the boundary of Big South National River and Recreation Area, along the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee; and 2,210 uninhabited acres in Mojave National Preserve.

Along Montana’s Blackfoot River, made famous by Norman Maclean’s story, A River Runs Through It, the Bureau of Land Management might be able to tap $3 million to buy another 5,000 acres, while the Forest Service could buy up a 570-acre patch of hardwood forest in upstate South Carolina, which is facing heavy development pressure.

In Massachusetts, the act could help the Fish and Wildlife Service protect endangered shellfish and rare birds in and around the Conte Refuge by providing money to buy land along the Fort River, protect forests along the Connecticut River, and safeguard 90 acres of brooks and wetlands.

The act might also help secure conservation easements on private land that links the Selkirk, Cabinet, and Purcell mountains in northern Idaho by buying development rights along Idaho’s Moyie River.

“There are a lot of good projects that have been shelved for lack of money,” Cors says. “The need has never been higher.”