Great American Outdoors Act: Tracing the Money Trail
If you’re a fan of national parks, forests, and BLM recreation areas, you’re in very good company. Over 325-million people visited national parks in 2021. That number is a fraction of the total number of annual campers, climbers, bikers, hikers, and boaters recreating on all federal lands—which include millions of additional acres of wildlife refuges, wetlands, tribal schools, and historic sites. Obviously the maintenance involved in this nation-wide backyard is, in a word, colossal. Yellowstone National Park alone contains nearly 500 miles of roads, 1,000 miles of trail, hundreds of campsites, visitor centers, park buildings, boardwalks, signage… You get the picture. It’s a giant—costly—task tending to our birthright lands properly. Thankfully, the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA)—passed in August, 2020—was designed to cover the tab for some extensive, much-needed upkeep. It provides the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with an annual budget of $1.61 billion dollars over the next five years—totaling about $8 billion—to make critical repairs.
Where the Great American Outdoors Act’s money’s being allocated
High among the priorities are big, basic tasks like road, bridge and building repairs, water system overhauls and numerous campground upgrades—as well as conservation projects and further land acquisition. A hundred percent of the money feeds into the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, with 85 percent spent by Department of the Interior. The remaining 15 percent goes to the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The source of the funding comes from energy development revenues, plus royalties from off-shore and natural gas leases.
The importance of passing GAOA last summer was hard to dispute. Public lands need upkeep. People need jobs. The dollars go not only into improving access, enhancing visitor experience, and making travel safer, but also putting local populations to work—often in relatively remote areas hit hard by Covid shutdowns.
“Through the Great American Outdoors Act, we are investing in the American people, and in the future of our public lands and sacred spaces,” says Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
The Department of the Interior estimates that in 2021, GAOA investments have to date supported about 19,000 jobs and contributed $2 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. Thousands of volunteer opportunities are also available to further connect outdoor enthusiasts with the parks and monuments they love.
In addition, GAOA authorizes $900 million a year in permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) which includes dollars for three American Battlefield Protection Program grants—including land acquisition initiatives that enable the protection and preservation of over 28,000 acres of historic American battlefield lands dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The breakdown thus far
Here’s this year’s spending breakdown for GAOA: The National Park Service (NPS) gets $1.33 billion, with $95 million dollars each going to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education. About 47 percent of the total has been for transportation support, with 30 percent going to buildings and structures, another 16 percent to water and utilities, 4 percent toward recreational assets, and three percent spent on demolition.
This year, GAOA’s NPS outreach included repairs to the intricate stonework beneath the columns of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., fortification for the foundations of the Statue of Liberty, and repaving Shenandoah National Park’s scenic Skyline Drive. Bureau of Land Management dollars were spread across the country—including to Spokane, WA’s District Historic Building Stabilization project, New Mexico’s Prehistoric Trackways National Monument roadwork project, and an upgrade for the boat ramp at California’s Pleasant Valley Pit Campground.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also got in on the deal. A project in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge went to facility repair and helped to buttress the high-hazard Comanche Dam. At the Seney (MI) National Wildlife Refuge, recreational access was improved, with emphasis on the bridge and Auto Tour Route. Projects at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge (IL) upgraded access and campgrounds, but also repaired the refuge’s three high-hazard dams. Many iconic structures received some badly needed work.
National Park gems like Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave Hotel finally got its new roof, and Oregon’s iconic Timberline Lodge received heat and plumbing upgrades. In Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, new concessionaire housing has been erected.
In 2022, rock climbers and tourists alike will see structural work done at Yosemite National Park’s historic Ahwahnee Hotel, a new day lodge at Hurricane Ridge in Washington’s Olympic National Park, and a much-needed remodel for the remote Chisos Mountains Lodge in Texas’ Big Bend National Park.
GAOA also funds land acquisition programs through the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. It also provides State Conservation Grants, Outdoor Recreation Legacy Grants, American Battlefield Protection Programs, Endangered Species Conservation grants, and dollars to conserve the Highlands—a wild area in upstate New York.
As of September 22, 2021, roughly $682 million (42 percent) of the Department of the Interior’s funding has been obligated. Translation: there’s still a lot of work to be done—and much money to be spent.
Better yet, hit the road and pay a welcome visit to some of your favorite national parks, forests, monuments, battlefields and wildlife refuges—or discover new ones at the perfect time. They’re all yours.