Great American Outdoors Act could address Zion’s $70 million maintenance backlog, help other public lands

ST. GEORGE — The Great American Outdoors Act, which was recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, is being hailed by public lands advocates as one of the greatest conservation funding laws in history. But what is it and how will it benefit area public lands?

A sign welcomes visitors to the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area near St. George, Utah, Aug. 16, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

With nearly $1.9 billion per year to be invested over the next 5 years, the law has the potential to address millions and even billions of dollars worth of backlogged maintenance issues as well as create more and better recreation opportunities within national parks, national forests and other public lands.

The Great American Outdoors Act will use royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to provide the funds that will be shared across the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Refuges and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Additionally, the act will permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million annually for the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the country, according to a post from the Department of the Interior.

The monies from the Land and Water Conservation Fund will help improve recreation access to public lands through strategic land acquisitions.

For the United States Forest Service alone, those funds support and strengthen a recreation economy that contributes nearly $11 billion to the United States economy and sustains more the 148,000 full and part-time jobs and acting as a catalyst for rural economic development, information from the United States Forest Service said.

On a local level, spokespeople from the national forest were unable to say how it could impact the Dixie National Forest as the legislation was so new and they weren’t sure how the funds would be allocated, but Dixie National Forest Public Affairs Officer Kevin Abel did tell St. George News they were excited about the act and its potential to help with deferred maintenance projects and new recreation opportunities.

The Santa Clara river runs through the Pine Valley Recreation Area in the Dixie National Forest, Utah, July 3, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

“The agency is diligently working to provide priority lists to Congress regarding federal land acquisition and addressing deferred maintenance on national forests and grasslands,” a press release from the United States Forest Service, which is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture, said.

“The Forest Service will use these funds to maximize the benefits received by current and future generations of Americans from national forests and grasslands. Projects funded by this act will focus on improving conditions on forest and rangelands, reducing wildfire risk, and increasing the resiliency of our nation’s forests to the devastating destruction that can be caused by insects and wildfires,” the press release added.

For national parks like Zion National Park, the Great American Outdoors Act will go toward helping to clear billions of dollars – over $70 million in Zion alone – in backlogged maintenance and repairs.

The law provides over $6.5 billion for the National Park Service over a five-year period. It additionally allocates $3 billion across the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, National Wildlife Refuges and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Implementing the law will take time, and Zion National Park spokesperson Jeff Axel said it is impossible to tell this early how it will impact Zion.

“We’ll see what comes of it now that it is passed. It is going to be quite a while before we know what that means for parks,” Axel said.

But a post from the Zion Forever Project said that with careful planning, the bill could go a long way toward addressing key issues in the park for the future.

The park’s nonprofit fundraising partner’s executive director Lyman Hafen praised what he called an ambitious bill.

Hafen said:

It may seem like an overstatement, but in over 30 years of working in public lands partnership, this really does seem to be among the most significant pieces of legislation we have seen addressed for our parks and monuments. With park budgets remaining stagnant over the past 15 years, and with visitation and other pressures mounting, this long overdue funding will be put to the best possible use.

However, while the Great American Outdoors Act has been widely praised and saw mostly bipartisan support, it wasn’t brought into law without some controversy.

The primary controversy is surrounding the funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which opponents such as the National Cattleman’s Beef Association have claimed will allow federal agencies to acquire private land without any congressional oversight, a potential violation of private land ownership.

Views of Cedar Breaks National Monument from the Alpine Loop Trail, Cedar Breaks, Utah, July 25, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

While it remains to be seen whether that is the case, the Zion Forever Project’s post did say that land acquisition in Southern Utah has always and will “always rely on interested and willing landowners seeking to conserve their lands and preserve their natural heritage.”

As public lands leaders look toward implementing the act and putting the funds to good use, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has set up a task force to help maximize the impact of the funds.

“I’ve established a task force to maximize the impact of the Great American Outdoors Act and determine priority funding needs, so we can expeditiously serve the American public in rebuilding their national parks, American Indian schools and public lands,” Bernhardt said in a press release.

The task force will have six main focuses, which Bernhardt laid out as follows:

  1. Develop a strategy to maximize the impact of the Great American Outdoors Act. The strategy shall ensure a timely project proposal and review process that minimizes delay and ensures decisive action; cuts across bureaus; and includes the establishment and utilization of a centralized project management office.
  2. Identify an initial list of priority deferred maintenance projects that are ready to be implemented in fiscal year 2021 and provide the list to the Secretary of the Interior within 50 days of the date of this order.
  3. Evaluate staffing needs and direct relevant bureaus/offices to initiate necessary hiring and recruitment efforts.
  4. Identify additional policies and/or revisions to existing policies or practices that are needed to maximize successful implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act.
  5. Develop best management practices for deferred maintenance projects.
  6. Recommend such other actions as may be necessary to fulfill the goals of this order.

The full text of the Great American Outdoors Act can be read here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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