The Great American Outdoors Act, recently passed by Congress and signed into law this week by President Donald Trump, is a big win for the Chesapeake Bay and for our country.
The Great American Outdoors Act is one of the most significant conservation acts in decades. The act permanently and fully funds the nation’s most important federal conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a program which protects land for national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands. The act also provides funding to address the park maintenance backlog, which has severely hampered agencies like the National Park Service in their efforts to connect the public to nature and to protect nature in their parks.
LWCF has been absolutely essential to conservation efforts here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. A long list of important natural, historic and cultural places have been protected through LWCF, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, George Washington and Jefferson Forests in Virginia and West Virginia, Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail which runs through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. LWCF also provides millions of dollars in grants each year to states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for parks and other natural areas.
LWCF is a unique program in our federal government: it receives funding through offshore energy development royalties. In this way, the program balances the extraction of one natural resource for the protection of another. In addition, LWCF directly supports local economies through park tourism and outdoor recreation. In the Chesapeake Bay alone, outdoor recreation generates more than $50 billion in consumer spending and employs 1 million people.
Despite its record of success in conservation, its stable funding source, and its proven economic impact, LWCF has almost never been fully funded and rarely has the program been funded at even half its authorized amount. In its 51 year history, more than $20 billion dollars have been diverted from LWCF for other uses. The Great American Outdoors Act resolves this long-standing barrier for conservation and for our public lands.
The Great American Outdoors Act also provides critical support for national parks and public lands at a time when it is needed most. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how much Americans value natural places for health and recreation. Park visitation has skyrocketed around the country, from our local parks up to our national parks. My organization Chesapeake Conservancy recently found that park visitation in Washington, D.C. is up by about 94%, and park visitation in Baltimore has increased about 87%. Funding for infrastructure and maintenance in national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands has been sorely neglected, and the increased visitation at parks adds considerable stress on parks and the nature that they protect. The Great American Outdoors Act will help to address this maintenance backlog so that people can continue to enjoy their public lands.
Full, permanent funding for LWCF and funding for park maintenance will also help us to address a second critical goal: providing more green space for minority communities. Historically, conservation and park access in the United States has not been equitable. We have some incredible national parks in the United States like Yosemite and Yellowstone, and there’s no question of their importance. Yet many people, particularly from minority groups, do not have easy access to these parks. We need to invest in natural places and green space near and in urban centers to fix this inequity, and new programs like the LWCF Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program will be supported by the Great American Outdoors Act to address this very issue.
Here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, partners are working hard to protect remaining forests and natural lands near our rivers so that we can limit the amount of pollution that reaches the bay and protect our wildlife. In a fast-growing region like the Washington, D.C. metro area, we need all the support we can get. Passing the Great American Outdoors Act is an enormous win for nature, for local economies, and for our people here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and across the country.
Joel Dunn (email@example.com) is president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis.