A year ago this month, the landmark Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law — a result of years of tireless advocacy by the outdoor community and hard work and negotiations by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
The passage of this bill marked a tremendous victory for the outdoors and for conservationists, not to mention local economies across the country. With overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, the law provided a long-awaited $900 million in permanent annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and addressed the $20 billion maintenance backlog on federal public lands.
Although there is cause for celebration on this first anniversary of the law’s enactment, there is an equal amount of work ahead to fulfill its environmental and economic promises. The Great American Outdoors Act, or GAOA, was designed to advance conservation and expand access to the outdoors, and organized and concentrated efforts by federal agencies are essential to its long-term success.
The law has already led to new restoration projects and public land improvements, from replacing a dilapidated bridge in Shoshone National Forest to resurfacing roads at the Manti-La Sal National Forest. More than $285 million in projects are already underway across the national forest system in 40 states, with another 1,000 improvement projects — including campgrounds, trails and visitor centers — in the pipeline through the Forest Service and Department of Interior.
But there is still work to do to fully realize the benefits of GAOA, including prioritizing projects to help with overcrowding at many national parks, expanding opportunities for communities to access these resources and promoting additional rural development.
Implementing GAOA requires all hands on deck. That’s why the outdoor industry advocates the creation of a 21st Century Civilian Climate Corps to provide the support to fix decades of backlogged maintenance, build new resilience and conservation projects, and protect communities against droughts, wildfires and floods. Just last month, I met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure package prior to its Senate approval and to advocate smart climate provisions. We are particularly encouraged to see the Civilian Climate Corps proposal gaining momentum in Congress as a key piece of the Senate’s budget reconciliation bill.
Additionally, increased funding for projects authorized by GAOA this upcoming fiscal year would finance additional conservation projects to revitalize our public lands and waters. The outdoor industry was encouraged to see Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack advocate more GAOA funding in their 2022 budget proposals.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed the country what avid outdoorists have known for years: Parks and trails provide important benefits for physical and mental health and can serve as a place of refuge and gathering. We can’t wait any longer to prioritize conservation and resiliency. More than ever before, Americans — including more women, people of diverse ethnicities and urban dwellers — are flocking to parks and other public lands, so we must invest in making the outdoors more accessible to all, regardless of ZIP code or background.
Investment in federal lands would also lead to new jobs in many industries, including the $788 billion outdoor industry, which currently employs 5.2 million people across all 50 states. Plus, if implemented effectively, GAOA has the potential create an additional 100,000 park-related jobs.
We are slowly but surely beginning to reap the benefits of the Great American Outdoors Act, but our work is far from over. The outdoor industry stands ready to support efforts by Congress and the Biden administration to create a 21st Century Civilian Climate Corps and ensure federal agencies have the resources to implement the law to its fullest extent so individuals, communities and the outdoors can continue to thrive.
Lise Aangeenbrug is the executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, the leading trade group for outdoor recreation brands.