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The Great Outdoors Gets An Act Of Congress

Great Basin National Park
Andrew Kearns/Flickr

Great Basin National Park

President Donald Trump has said it's his goal to open as much public land as possible to development. So, why did he recently sign one of the most sweeping pieces of environmental legislation in recent history? 

It's called the Great American Outdoors Act, and it allocates nearly $2 billion per year for maintenance at national parks and other public lands, as well as permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“I think the Great American Outdoors Act, really, if you want to put it in one very simple term, it makes a tremendous investment in conservation across the United States in communities in every state from rural communities to urban communities from the East Coast to the West Coast,” said Andy Maggi, outgoing director for the Nevada Conservation League.

One part of the new law permanently funds and protects the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Maggi said, which is something environmentalists have been pushing for years.

The fund was established 50 years ago. It takes a portion of the fees paid by companies doing offshore oil and gas drilling and puts it toward state and local recreation areas. 

It “is one of our oldest and most successful conservation programs in the country’s history," Maggi said.

Every year, around $900 million dollars in offshore drilling royalty's are funneled into the fund, he said, but over the last several years, $20 billion has been siphoned out of the fund to go elsewhere.

The Great American Outdoors Act stops that practice and keeps the fund funded.

But, not everyone likes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Some environmentalists call it "blood money" because it allows companies to continue to drill for oil and gas and pay a small penance.

Maggi agress that offshore drilling should be stopped completely, not just because it damages the surrounding environment, but also because it contributes to the burning of fossil fuels and climate change globally.

“I also think that as it continues to happen and it continues to have these negative impacts that those polluters bear a responsibility to help fund conservation efforts where they can, and that is exactly what this program does," he said.

Maggi said the fund helps conservation and protection efforts around the country and specifically in local areas.

“The most accessible thing about the Land and Water Conservation Fund is that it is money that literally goes to states and local communities to fund what their local conservation and outdoor access priorities are,” he said.

Maggi said every community in Nevada has received money from the fund and has been able to pay for their recreation or conservation priority from improved hiking trails at Red Rock National Conservation Area to nature trails in neighborhood parks.

The other key provision in the Great American Outdoors Act aims to improve the nation's national parks and recreation areas.

“The other thing that the Great American Outdoors Act does, which I think is also very important, is it designates a fund of money to help work through the maintenance backlog in our national parks and conservation lands,” Maggi said.

The act provides $9 billion a year through 2025 to address the backlog, which Maggi estimates at about $20 billion. The money will pay for everything from improved roads and bridges to new parking lots and signage.

The largest area of land in Nevada that is managed by the park service is the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Maggi can't say for sure which areas will get funding because there will be an approval process through the Department of Interior, but, at a place like Lake Mead, for example, it could be used to improve lake access, docking areas, campsites and parking lots.

President Trump is not known as a great supporter of conserving public lands. In fact, environmentalists say the Trump administration has rolled back years of progress on protecting land, water and air quality in the United States.

Maggi believes the president signed the Great American Outdoors Act after a grassroots groundswell of support from people of all political parties.

“You’ve had a coalition of conservation (and) community organizations across the country in every state pushing for this to happen, and that’s been happening for a number of years now,” he said. “We also know that people from all political walks of life love to go outdoors, they love to go to parks and that conservation continues to be a broadly supported issue across the country."

He also thinks the supporting the act might be a way for President Trump and other GOP lawmakers to "soften" their record on environmental issues during an election year.

Since putting money into fixing up national parks and funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund are popular with the public, supporting the Great American Outdoors Act is a relatively simple way to do that, Maggi said.

However, Maggi is not sure signing this act will get environmentalists and conservationists back on President Trump's side this November.

Maggi said the only way to regain the ground lost to the administration's environmental rollbacks and move the ball forward to address climate change and other environmental issues is to not have Donald Trump in the White House in January 2021. 

Andi Maggi, outgoing executive director, Nevada Conservation League

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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.