Senate Passes Historic Parks Infrastructure Legislation

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Our nation’s parks infrastructure had a victory this week with Senate passage (73 – 25) of the Great American Outdoors Act, S. 3422. This win would not have been possible without the incredible advocacy of our Key Contacts, who sent 350 emails to 78 Senate offices! ASCE supports passage of this legislation as a critical way to help raise our nation’s “D+” parks infrastructure grade.

The Great American Outdoors Act creates a dedicated fund to address the National Park Services’ $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog and $8 billion in the repair of public lands managed by other federal agencies. It directs 50% of unobligated federal mineral revenues up to $9.5 billion over five years – revenues such as royalties from on and offshore oil & gas and renewable energy development on public lands – to draw down the deferred maintenance backlog. Seventy percent of the fund goes to address the NPS’ deferred maintenance backlog, while the U.S. Forest Service receives 15%, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education schools would each receive 5%. Sixty-five percent of the NPS portion goes toward the repair of non-transportation resources, while 35% is used to restore transportation-related assets.

The bill also permanently funds the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at its fully authorized level. Although the program is authorized for $900 million per year, it routinely receives only half of that during the appropriations process. The LWCF provide a critical source of funding for the protection of natural resources and for outdoor recreation projects, including local parks, playgrounds, urban wildlife refuges, greenways, trails, and open spaces. In fact, more than 98% of our nation’s counties have a park project that has been funded by the LWCF. Since its inception in 1965, the LWCF has provided state and local governments with over 42,000 matching grants totaling over $4 billion and leveraging much more in local and private investment. Funded through revenues generated through offshore oil and gas energy development, the LWCF comes at no cost to the taxpayer and generates $4 in economic value for every dollar invested. A recent poll found that an overwhelming majority – 82% – of voters supporting the LWCF.

Our nation’s urban, state, and federal public parks are incredible economic drivers. Americans are spending more time in parks, and in 2017 alone, people spent $887 billion in annual outdoor recreation, directly supporting 7.6 million jobs and generating $125 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue. In 2019, 327 million visitors spent $21 billion in gateway communities, or those within 60 miles of a National Park. This spending supported a total of 340,500 thousand jobs nationwide, including 278,000 jobs in gateway communities, and generated $41.7 billion for the U.S. economy. Visitor spending increased by $800 million from 2018 to 2019, helping grow the U.S. economy by $1.6 billion.

Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act will also assist in our nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that fully addressing the NPS deferred maintenance backlog would create or support over 100,000 jobs (2019 study here and 2020 NPS economic report here). A June 2019 poll found that more than 4 in 5 voters support such a proposal to help remedy the NPS deferred maintenance backlog, and 86% of voters feel it is extremely/very important to repair and maintain water and sewer systems at our nation’s parks.

Access to and investment in our public parks remains a bedrock of American society and a critical category within ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. Fortunately, Rep. Cunningham (D-SC) and 11 other bipartisan Members of Congress recently introduced an identical companion bill (H.R. 7092) to the Great American Outdoors Act. ASCE 2020 President K.N. Gunalan “Guna,” Ph.D., PE weighed in to support the introduction of this bill, saying “A ‘yes’ on this bill is one step closer to improving the quality of life and preserving our national treasures for generation to come.” Add your voice to this conversation by contacting your Senators to thank them for voting yes on this bill, as well as reaching out to your Representative urging them to cosponsor H.R. 7092.

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