On June 17, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (73-25) to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, and now senators and their conservation partners are calling on the House to pass the Senate’s bill as soon as possible. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has stated that he plans to bring the bill up in the last two weeks of July.
What does this mean for America and for public—and even some private— lands in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee in particular?
“The Great American Outdoors Act is historic legislation that would significantly reduce the National Park Service maintenance backlog,” said Jeff Hunter, Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “In addition, the bill permanently reauthorizes and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually. That is huge! If Congress passes this bill into law, it will be a victory for everyone who loves parks.”
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) works to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations. For years, the organization has been working to obtain much-needed funding to fix national parks’ trails, service roads, and other critical park infrastructure. Locally, NPCA works with the land trust community to secure protection for lands adjacent to national parks. This includes obtaining wildlife corridors and other important conservation lands from willing sellers. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is key to making this possible.
Part of the reason the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) has come this far is because of activism from organizations like NPCA and, another big acronym in the park world, PLA, the Public Lands Alliance. PLA connects, strengthens, and represents the nonprofit partners of America’s public lands. These nonprofit organizations build and maintain trails, publish and sell educational products, conduct informative and interpretive tours, teach environmental science to youth, manage volunteers, fundraise, and much more. Without them, parks couldn’t thrive.
“Every one of these partners need safe, accessible facilities to create and deliver these programs to visitors,” said Dan Puskar, President and CEO of the Public Lands Alliance.
“Every one of these partners cares about reducing the number of in-holdings in their national parks and delivering outdoor opportunities to people across the nation. The GAOA is therefore perfectly aligned with the operations and aspirations of nonprofit public lands partners.”
To understand the role of nonprofit park partners, take a look at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is supported by a strong group of partners that includes Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies, Discover Life in America and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. All of these partners contribute greatly to the park’s operations and stand to also benefit from the GAOA.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is a bold response to the very long-term problem of deferred maintenance,” said Laurel Rematore, CEO of Great Smoky Mountains Association, which runs the bookstores in Smokies visitor centers. “Our park’s backlog of maintenance projects currently exceeds $200 million, which is among the largest of the backlogs in the 419-unit National Park System.”
Cassius Cash, Superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says, “While our staff takes great pride in doing the best with what we have to take care of all the historic structures in the park and the infrastructure of roads, trails, and facilities that enable visitors to experience the Smokies, we simply do not have enough staff and funding to maintain it all in good condition. This is especially true in these times of record numbers of park visitors using roads and facilities that were never designed to support so many people.”
Rematore said the challenge for crown jewel parks like the Smokies will be for the National Park Service to put these funds to work quickly and to show measurable positive impacts to Congress and the American people.
“The National Park Service must apply these funds within its framework of planning, design, environmental and historic preservation compliance, contracting, and projects oversight, while continuing to provide annual operational services to this park’s 12.5 million visitors,” she said. “We expect there will be intense pressure on the Smokies staff to lead the National Park System in retiring its maintenance backlog within the next decade.”
The Smokies aren’t the only park in the area facing mounting costs. Historic buildings, campgrounds, trails, and water systems along the Blue Ridge Parkway are also in disrepair. In fiscal year 2018, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s backlog exceeded $500 million, but the park received only $15-20 million per year for maintenance work.
PLA’s Puskar points out that, with the passage of the GAOA, “people in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina who love the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests can celebrate because there will be deferred maintenance funds available to the U.S. Forest Service as well.” As can cities like Asheville and Knoxville, and every other town in between, that could apply for Land and Water Conservation Fund support to expand a ball field or create a new city park.
NPCA’s Hunter emphasized that these funds are critically needed. “Without passage of the GAOA, the visitor experience will continue to be diminished because of aging infrastructure and substandard facilities,” he said. “The GAOA will bring our national parks into the 21st century while creating jobs and supporting gateway communities that rely on park visitors.”
The bill just passed the Senate and is headed for the House for a vote. If you’re a hiker, a cyclist, a birder, a wildlife watcher, or like to fish, now is the time to speak up for our parks. Please contact your Representative and tell them to take a stand for the parks in your backyard, and vote “yea” for the Great American Outdoors Act.
Frances Figart is the editor of Smokies Life magazine and the Creative Services Director for the 34,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, an educational nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Reach her at email@example.com.