Sen. Amy Klobuchar and President Donald Trump agree.
The U.S. House of Representatives needs to act swiftly to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.
The bill, which passed the Senate with a bipartisan 75-23 margin on June 17 and has the president's blessing on Twitter, can secure steady long-term funding for outdoors projects around the country with no expense to the taxpayers. This would be huge for outdoor recreational opportunities from coast to coast, and especially good for Minnesotans.
Last year, Congress reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in 1964 to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans and to help safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage. Funded with royalties from offshore oil and gas extraction, the fund does not cost taxpayers a dime and has helped us preserve places like the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Grand Canyon, and even our very own Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Even closer to home, the fund has helped preserve and protect smaller projects like parks and ball fields in every Minnesota county.
The Great American Outdoors Act would ensure that the Land and Water Conservation Fund receives its full allotment of dedicated funding — permanently. While the source for the funding is constant, in years past it has been raided and reallocated for other, unrelated priorities. The Great American Outdoors Act would simply make sure that the funds set aside for the Land and Water Conservation Fund are received by the fund. The act would have the net result of creating thousands of jobs by finally addressing the current backlog of maintenance needs on our public lands, including our national parks, while also doubling our investment in local economies and their tourism needs.
A fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund would result in a significant increase in funds to the state and national parks of significance and, from a Minnesota perspective, the biggest win will be more funding for local parks through pass-thru grants. The state’s portion could increase from $3.8 million in fiscal year 2020 to as much as $8 million annually; 50% of the allocation would go to state facilities and the other half to local park grants.
The full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund would help address disparities outlined in Minnesota’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. Every state agency, including the Department of Natural Resources, is working with outdoor recreation providers to enhance programs, services, and opportunities to embrace and advance the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want everyone enjoying Minnesota’s outdoor recreational opportunities to have better access, and a fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund will help improve equal, equitable, and inclusive outdoor recreation spaces for all individuals and communities.
Another opportunity would potentially complete a long-delayed, state-federal land swap. As Minnesota became a state, 2.5 million acres were set aside in trust to help fund education. The Department of Natural Resources serves as trustee for the lands, managing them in a way that maximizes the long-term income potential of the lands while maintaining the overall sustainability of the assets. The land puts millions of dollars into the state’s education coffers annually.
When the Boundary Waters was created in 1964, 82,400 acres of these trust lands were trapped in the middle of the new wilderness area, greatly decreasing the ability for them to be accessed by anyone seeking to lease them from the state.
Were the Great American Outdoors Act to pass, the federal government would have a long-term source of dedicated funds necessary to swap land outside the BWCAW with the landlocked parcels, giving the state 82,400 more usable acres of trust land to do with as it chooses. And it would also allow the federal government to add its new acres to the nation’s most visited wilderness area for people to enjoy for generations to come.
So, members of the Minnesota congressional delegation will vote, likely within a week, on this bill. Minnesota’s U.S. Reps. Angie Craig, Dean Phillips, Bettty McCollum, and Ilhan Omar have already agreed to cosponsor the underlying bill. To the rest of the Minnesota delegation, this seems like an easy vote. The Great American Outdoors Act will help ensure that the government has the resources it needs for protecting outdoor recreational opportunities for years to come and at no cost to the taxpayers. And it will most likely also result in giving the state’s schools more financial flexibility while also greatly increasing the amount of public land available for Minnesotans to enjoy for years to come.
Rarely does Congress get an opportunity to vote on a bill with broad bipartisan support that would provide a victory to all the voters back home at no cost to the taxpayers.
When the Great American Outdoors Act comes up, we hope our representatives in Congress do the right thing and vote to support our schools and environment.
Paul Austin of Minneapolis is executive director of Conservation Minnesota (conservationminnesota.org). He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.