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The Senate recently passed the Great American Outdoors Act, landing $1.9 billion per year in repairs and improvements to parks and public lands and $900 million per year in permanent funding to the Land and Waters Conservation Fund (LWCF). With House passage and a Presidential signature likely soon, rural counties could see significant increases in funding for parks and public lands access projects. 

Conservation groups, who have campaigned to make the LWCF permanent and fully funded for decades, applauded the results. 

“It fulfills a promise we made 55 years ago to create a national legacy of investing in our natural resources,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a statement. 

“It also fixes our roads, trails, boat ramps, and recreational spaces so future generations can enjoy them. And it helps put Americans back to work through conservation at a time when unemployment rates are at near-record levels.”

The vote “is a win for all Americans,” said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney. “We the people set the stage for investing in our shared lands and waters and the spirit of bipartisan compromise that led us to this moment, where we have a once in a generation legislative victory within our grasp.”

LWCF has been an important tool for rural communities who want to pursue outdoor recreation as a vehicle for rural economic development according to Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group. 

“LWCF has touched all 50 states, touched thousands of local communities, and it’s an important resource especially in rural places,” Lawson told the Daily Yonder in an interview about the legislation in March. 

Lawson said that many rural communities have a difficult time finding resources to invest in the parking lots, boat launches, trailheads, and other access points necessary for outdoor recreation. The legislation provides federal resources to solve those challenges. 

The bill is a rare piece of bipartisan legislation likely to pass in this highly polarized Congressional session. The U.S. Senate voted 73-25 to pass the Great American Outdoors Act last week. 

All 25 “no” votes on the bill were Republican Senators. Lead sponsors in the Senate were Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Steve Daines (R-MT), Mark Warner (D-VA), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM). 

In the House, the companion legislation is sponsored by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and currently has 28 co-sponsors from both parties. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote. 

In addition to permanent funding of LWCF at $900 million per year, the bill also provides $1.9 per year for the next five years between the National Park Service (70%), U.S. Forest Service (15%), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (5%), Bureau of Land Management (5%) and the Bureau of Indian Education (5%). 

The parks’ repair funds would help to fill a backlog of more than $12 billion in deferred maintenance for the National Park Service alone, said Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

“This act will address the crippling $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog at our national parks, a step that is critical to the continued protection and preservation of our treasured natural and cultural resources,” Francis said in a statement.

According to a Stateline analysis of Census data, the trend for outdoor recreation in rural communities is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017. This growth reversed population declines present since 2010.

While rural counties with large mining and farming industries shrank, counties with large recreation industries grew the most of any sector, by about 42,000 jobs. There are approximately 6.3 million rural recreation jobs nationwide.

These economic trends have changed, however, with the outbreak of Covid-19 in rural counties. As Daily Yonder reported on the April jobs numbers, rural counties dependent on outdoor recreation faced increased unemployment compared to non-recreation-dependent rural counties. 

According to our reporting, rural counties with recreation economies lost 13.3% of their jobs. 

Conservation groups linked the bill to a potential economic boost in the Covid-19 recovery effort. 

“As the last few months have demonstrated, nature plays a vital role in our emotional and economic well-being,” said Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy. 

“The investments in this bill will protect important landscapes, expand outdoor recreation opportunities nationwide, and ensure our great outdoors and the communities it supports will be ready for generations of visitors to come.”