Great American Outdoors Act Introduced
It's been a wild ride this past week for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Restore Our Parks Act, and it all seems to have been initiated by a tweet from the President that began with these words: "I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks."
Earlier this Congress we were invited to testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and we highlighted the importance of addressing the unfunded maintenance needs our federal land managers have (video clip from testimony). We also called for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
If you go back through the pages of the American Whitewater journal, you will find that we were early advocates for the Land and Water Conservation Fund when it was established in 1964. In the years since, we have utilized the program to secure funds to put river corridors in public ownership and establish access on rivers like the Skagit (WA), Green (WA), White Salmon (WA), Salmon (ID), Sandy (OR), Gauley (WV), Rio Grande (NM), Green (UT), Arkansas (CO), Youghigheny (PA), Winnipesaukee (NH), and many others (map of selected river access points that have benefited from this program).
The program is based on the simple concept of using revenues from the depletion of one natural resource - offshore oil and gas - to support the conservation of another precious resource - our land and water. Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf are put into this fund. Unfortunately however the existence of this program has not guaranteed that the $900 million put into the account every year will be spent on conservation. Over the 55 years of the program, billions of dollars have been siphoned from the fund for other non-conservation purposes. In fact, this past fiscal year 2020, only $495 million was appropriated to Land and Water Conservation Fund-far short of full funding, and yet the highest amount in 15 years.
To rectify this situation, American Whitewater has joined the chorus of voices to ensure that the Land and Water Conservation meets its original intended purpose. We are strong supporters of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act (S. 1081) sponsored by Senator Joe Manchin (WV), along with 59 Senate co-sponsors, stating that "amounts deposited in the Fund under section 200302 shall be made available for expenditure." A companion bill in the House (H.R. 3195) was introduced by Representative Van Drew (NJ-2) with 232 co-sponsors.
A second bill, the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500), was also introduced to establish a new fund to address the chronic underfunding of maintenance at our National Parks. This bill was introduced by Senator Rob Portman (OH) with 51 Senate co-sponsors. The companion House bill (H.R. 1225) was introduced by Representative Bishop (UT-1). While American Whitewater supported this bill we joined the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable and many others the recreation community to make the case that it needed to include all land management agencies and not just the National Park Service.
While both bills had passed out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it was unclear if they would see action on the Senate floor. The urgency of that happening increased with a Presidential tweet. With American Whitewater staff members Thomas O'Keefe and Kevin Colburn in Washington DC when this all went down, we sprung into action. Working with The Conservation Alliance and Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition we hit the Hill and spoke to dozens of staff members and a few Members of Congress to express our enthusiasm. We also doubled down on efforts to get the Forest Service included in the bill. Through an incredible network of partnerships, we learned on Friday that the Forest Service would be included in a new bill that combined the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act and Restore Our Parks Act into the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422).
Over the weekend we hustled Congressional offices to get co-sponsors on this new bill that addresses the key points we made in our Congressional testimony last year. Hundreds of American Whitewater members responded to our call to action on short notice and it made a difference. As staff, we know who to talk to on the Hill but they will only listen to us if they are hearing from constituents that what we have to say is important.
We still need to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, but with 55 Senators on the bill at introduction, and a President saying he is eager to sign it, we are in a very good place. We are pleased to see that outdoor recreation and access to rivers is viewed as a politically relevant issue to both sides of the aisle. Use our easy action form to reach out your representatives today and help us make sure this incredible opportunity for funding river recreation and conservation does not pass us by!