Earlier this week, President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that will provide funding for public lands in the United States. The bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives by the late civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-GA district 5).
While both houses of Congress have been preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the bill passed 73-25 in the Senate and 310-107 in the House of Representatives – an unusual amount of bipartisan support, given the intense polarization that has characterized American politics for more than a decade.
The act has two main provisions: the first, to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and the second, to allocate $9.5 billion over five years to address the backlog of maintenance in America’s national parks and other public lands.
As Linda Bilmes, co-author of “Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs: America’s Best Investment,” told the Harvard Gazette, the budgets for national parks have remained relatively flat for forty years, but the parks now have 50% more visitors than they did back then. This has led to $12 billion in deferred maintenance that can finally be address by the Great American Outdoors Act.
The LWCF, meanwhile, has been in place since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on the same day as the Wilderness Act. The fund is used to acquire new lands for conservation and protection, both at the federal level and, through grants, at the state and local levels. The LWCF receives its funds not from taxpayer dollars, but from royalties from oil and gas drilling, an arrangement that has been credited as “asset-for-asset.”
Despite being authorized with a budget of $900 million annually, the fund almost never actually received that funding. According to the Wilderness Society, more than $22 billion has been taken from the LWCF over the course of its history.
In 2015, Congress even allowed the LWCF’s authorization to expire, though it was soon re-authorized on a temporary basis, and then finally authorized permanently in 2019. But the problem remained that LWCF’s funding would continue to be vulnerable to diversion by Congress and attacks from other political figures – including President Trump himself, who in his most recent proposed federal budget recommended cutting 97% of the LWCF’s funding.
It’s more than a bit ironic, then, that Trump’s signature is now on the Outdoors Act, which will permanently fund the LWCF at its entire allocation of $900 million. (That said, one must note that $900 million in 1964 is closer to $7.5 billion today.)
The bill has led Trump to characterize himself as the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt, the president who famously instituted the national park system. “You said this would be bigger than Theodore Roosevelt,” said Trump in remarks at the bill’s signing. “I said, ‘Do me a favor: You don’t have to say that. Let’s just say it will be the same or almost as good.'”
Big talk from a president who has spent his term attacking the conservation of public lands wherever possible: as Bilmes notes, “[The Trump Administration] slashed Bear Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent, reduced Grand Staircase Escalante by 50 percent, removed protection for millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat in Western states, opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and most of the U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, reduced protections for wetlands, and weakened the Endangered Species Act.”
Despite the victory of the Outdoors Act, it’s doubtful conservation activists will look back on Trump’s presidency with much fondness. It’s largely agreed that Trump’s sudden support of the LWCF is to bolster the November Senate races in Colorado and Montana.
And yet – no matter how it happened or what the motives were, I’m pleased that the Great American Outdoors Act has passed, and is now law.
Regardless of the political maneuvering in the past few months, the fact is that conservationists have been working to protect, maintain, and expand public lands for decades, and this is ultimately a victory for the cause of conservation before it is a victory for any particular politician. With luck, this bill marks a turning point in the federal government’s relationship to public lands, from which it has largely disinvested since the 1980s.
I have written a fair amount here at The Wild Hunt about the complexities and contradictions of conservation: our system of designating places as “wilderness,” as defined by the LWCF’s sister legislation, defines “wilderness” as a place where people pass through and do not stay, and yet sets up conditions for permanent human occupation. In an effort to keep landscapes pristine and untouched, we guarantee they will be visited by tourists, who will need roads and concessions built for them. And the idea of wild places untrammeled by humanity is in itself a colonialist conception of our relationship to the world, one that ignores how Indigenous communities have related to the land for centuries, long before Europeans arrived in North America and declared it “virgin soil.”
My critiques, however, have always been in service to the project of public land conservation. As a Pagan, I fundamentally understand neither the earth nor any part of it is something to be owned; instead, the land we live on is something loaned to us, something which we have a responsibility to preserve and care for, and, ultimately, to pass to the future.
Just like the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Act – and indeed, every other piece of conservation legislation that has ever been passed in this country – the Great American Outdoors Act is riddled with contradictions. The LWCF’s funding system in itself means the preservation of nature in some places is tied to the destruction of nature at the hands of the fossil fuel industry in other places (which, if not checked, will soon lead to the death of nature everywhere.) To the extent that it aids the political fortunes of Cory Gardner and Steve Daines, it aids the project of the Republican party, which has made anti-environmentalism a cornerstone of its policies for many years.
Those contradictions don’t go away just by ignoring them – but then, the great benefits of this legislation don’t go away because of those issues, either. The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act will, I hope, lead to a new era of land conservation in the United States. It’s one of the few bright spots to be found in this dismal year.