Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park, Montana

(The Center Square) – U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., say federal legislation to improve public lands will help restart the country’s economy.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which Gardner, Manchin, and other senators introduced in March, has bipartisan support and is expected to be heard in the Senate this week.

Gardner and Manchin, along with several conservation groups, discussed the legislation Tuesday during a webinar hosted by ConservAmerica, a conservative-leaning environmental group.

The act would create a National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund that would be used to mitigate deferred maintenance costs to federal public lands. Deferred maintenance costs are costs for upkeep that have been put off due to budgetary constraints.

Federal public lands have $20 billion in existing deferred maintenance costs, while the National Parks Service itself has a $12 billion backlog.

The act would allocate half of all revenue from energy development on public lands – or up to $1.9 billion annually – to the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. That fund would distribute the money to the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education to cover costs of backlogged maintenance.

Brian Yablonski, CEO of the Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), told the webinar panel the bloating maintenance backlog is due to a combination of congressional neglect, more land acquisition, and an increase in visitors.

“One, there was a failure of Congress to make maintenance a priority,” he said.

“Secondly, there’s been something a former National Parks director called ‘thinning of the blood,’" Yablonski said. “Essentially what that meant was the acquisition of lands has been outpacing our maintenance budget.”

“Finally – and it’s been a good thing – but there’s been a surge in National Park visitors,” he said, cautioning that means “more wear and tear on trails, boardwalks, campgrounds, wastewater systems.”

The act also fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) with $900 million annually. LWCF funds conservation projects on state and federal public lands using offshore drilling royalties, but its funding is often significantly diverted by Congress.

Gardner and Manchin both said during the webinar that the Great American Outdoors Act would help get Americans back to work after millions have been laid off in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s not a piece of legislation that I know of that would do more to kickstart the economy than the Great American Outdoors Act,” Manchin said, adding some Republicans in the Senate still need to be persuaded to reach their goal of 65 votes.

Gardner said the act, which is backed by the $778 billion outdoor recreation economy, will help Americans “get back on their feet economically.”

“We know in Colorado that our outdoor recreation economy is $28 billion, and we know nationally it’s responsible for over 5 million jobs,” he said, adding that passing the act would “create well over 100,000 jobs just on the parks side alone.”

Some 318 million people visited national parks in 2018, contributing over $40 billion in economic output and supporting 329,000 jobs, the NPS says.

“Whether you consider yourself in the hook-and-bullet crowd, whether you consider yourself the hiking crowd, whether you consider yourself the ranching/grazing side, there’s something for every single person in this bill,” Gardner said.

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