The economy is still in tatters, the pandemic is still raging, but finally there’s something to celebrate. The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed last week with little fanfare and less rancor.
It’s a ray of sunshine that allows me the tiniest bit of hope that our species has let our collective foot off the accelerator rushing toward the proverbial cliff.
HR 1957, signed into law in the White House East Room on Aug. 4, guarantees $900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The cash infusion will allow federal property managers to make substantial headway on a $12 billion backlog of maintenance after years of budget cuts.
The LWCF was created in 1964, funded by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. The authorization allocated up to $900 million per year, but most years Congress has appropriated less than half that amount.
The needs are large and growing. Visitors to the national parks system have increased by 50% since 1980, while the parks’ budget over the same period has not grown in real dollars.
In Southern California, National Parks and Preserves like Death Valley and the Mojave Desert will benefit. According to National Park Service data, Death Valley needed an estimated $129 million in deferred maintenance work at the end of fiscal year 2018; Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree required $118 million and $66 million, respectively.
Specifically, the act establishes a National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund that will provide up to $9 billion over the next five years for deferred maintenance. $6.5 billion is earmarked specifically to the 419 national park units.
The park service will share the money with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Education and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Even green spaces in downtown Los Angeles could benefit from the funds.
Linda Bilmes, an expert on the national parks’ budgeting, says the GAOA is “the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation. The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading advocacy organization for the parks, is hailing it as ‘a conservationist’s dream.’”
That the GAOA passed under the current administration’s watch borders on bizarre. However, Bilmes points out the both parties have long supported conservation. “The unusual show of bipartisanship is largely due to the political and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
That means job preservation and creation are paramount. The Outdoor Industry Association reports that outdoor recreation generates 7.6 million jobs nationally, including 691,000 in California. The GAOA is expected to create an additional 108,000 new jobs to repair park infrastructure, including access roads and bridges in these adjacent communities.
Another factor in its passage is the fact that, since the money almost entirely comes from fees from energy development on federal lands and waters, no new taxes are required.
Parks’ huge economic, health and enjoyment benefits are measurable. Bilmes’ research indicates that Americans place a value on national park land, waters and programs at $92 billion per year. This is at least 30 times the annual budget they receive from Congress before GAOA.
Americans are appreciating the outdoors even more during the pandemic. If you’re adventurous as well as careful, it’s not too late for a road trip this summer. You’ll want to take precautions like planning your fueling and food stops plus the usual distancing, masking, and handwashing to which we’ve become accustomed.
Once you’re alone on the trail with your household bubble members, you can bring back your naked smile for the trees and rocks to see.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.