Conservation on federal lands received strong bipartisan support today as landmark legislation for funding and maintenance passed out of the Senate.

The Great American Outdoors Act, one of the most significant pieces of conservation legislation in the past 60 years, secured a vote of 73-25. The result of years of work by a bipartisan team of lawmakers, the legislation addresses backlogged maintenance at America’s national parks and includes funding for public lands conservation through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

“This could be the biggest accomplishment going back to Teddy Roosevelt. This is a victory for the country. This is a victory for a nation that cares deeply about its environment and its public lands,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a longtime co-sponsor of the legislation.

“This is a historic win for the United States and it comes at a time when people needed to see Congress come together,” he added.

His enthusiasm was shared by fellow westerner U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and bipartisan lawmakers from across the country.

NPS staff reapplies mortar to an ancient wall

Photo Credit: NPS

“Today, we passed the most important conservation bill for Montana and the nation in decades – one that will increase public access to our public lands, support our national parks and protect our Montana outdoor way of life,” said Daines. “It has been one of my highest priorities to fight for LWCF and our national parks in the Senate, and with this monumental bipartisan vote, LWCF will have full, mandatory funding and we’ll be able to address our maintenance backlog at our parks.”

“I’m proud to have worked closely with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this historic conservation bill,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) another co-sponsor of the legislation. “Full and permanent funding for the LWCF is critical so our land management agencies can continue their legacy of conservation and growing opportunities for outdoor recreation. Addressing the daunting deferred maintenance needs in our national parks is long overdue and will ensure all of our public land management agencies can operate fully to maintain and protect the public lands we all cherish.”

Lawmakers are enthusiastic about how the legislation will help to expand access to public lands for future generations. The bill saw 59 co-sponsors in the Senate, including many from the West.

Senators from Western states like Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) were among the bill’s earliest co-sponsors.

“I think the most important thing about this is that we’re doing this for generations of Americans who aren’t even going to know who we are,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “They’re going to forget our names, but they are going to know that someone set this land aside so that they could have this meaningful experience.”

The lawmakers agreed that today’s vote was an encouraging flicker of bipartisanship amid contentious times.

“This took a lot of people to get here over a lot of years and I think it is an example of what can be done when people put down their political parties and put down their partisan swords,” said Gardner.

The Great American Outdoors Act dedicates a portion of the fees paid by energy and mineral developers operating on nonpark, non-wilderness federal lands to cover billions of dollars in backlogged National Parks maintenance and fully funds the LWCF. The law provides up to $9.5 billion over five years to fund park maintenance projects, which include repairs to park roads, bridges, and infrastructure, employee housing, and visitor facilities. The NPS has nearly $12 billion worth of backlogged maintenance projects across the parks system and has long struggled to find funding to cover them. The LWCF provides funding for conservation in parks, trails, and nature preserves across the country. Through the LWCF, the act also expands access to parks in urban areas with the goal of ensuring that children have access to the outdoors no matter where they live.

Photo Credit: NPS

Investment in the parks is important not only to ensure that they are accessible for years to come, but also because of the jobs these projects will create, especially those in communities that have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a big win for our gateway communities,” said Daines. “In fact, if we look at what’s happened with COVID-19, the state of Montana has been harder in terms of job loss than any of our neighboring states. Getting our outdoor economy opened again is going to be huge and this will lift the spirits of gateway communities that, frankly, have been very discouraged with their decreased tourism numbers.”

The same is true in Colorado, another state that benefits significantly from tourism. Gardner explained that work in Mesa Verde, a popular Colorado national park, would both preserve priceless Native American sites and create jobs. The park has more than $76 million in deferred maintenance.

“This is going to preserve that resource for generations to come and it is going to create jobs in Colorado for an area that desperately needs them,” he said.

The legislation has received broad support from a range of allies, including some 850 conservation groups, six former Interior Secretaries, and even a descendant of President Theodore Roosevelt. Earlier this week, Theodore Roosevelt IV wrote a letter urging Congress to “take a page from President Theodore Roosevelt’s book” by protecting “the stewardship of our natural place, great and small.”

With passage in the Senate, the legislation will move to the House. The senators explained that they had spoke with House leadership and are enthusiastic that the bill would pass quickly and without amendments.

The Great American Outdoors Act did encounter resistance from Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), who worried it would increase government spending and lead to even greater federal control over land in the west. Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi, who serves on the Senate Budget Committee, called it “the latest in an unprecedented spending spree Congress has been on for the past year.”