The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would further protect public lands and recreation across the country. The legislation would also help relieve a massive maintenance backlog on federal lands.
Washington conservation groups say this funding will help promote access to nature across the state.
The Great American Outdoors Act would permanently allocate $900 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which finally lapsed almost two years ago.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell pushed to fully authorize the fund at $900 million per year. That would nearly double the fund’s allotment in recent years. Last year, she co-sponsored a bill to permanently reauthorize the fund.
Cantwell said the fund has provided 5 million acres of protected land throughout the U.S. since its inception in 1964.
“We’ve had a fight, really, literally, I’d say the last 10 or 15 years of people who didn’t want to fully fund or even support the Land and Water Conservation Act,” Cantwell said in remarks on the Senate floor.
Opponents have called it a federal government land grab.
The fund is paid for by offshore oil and gas drilling royalties, something Cantwell called a “big win for the American people.” She said open spaces, protected by the fund, “are a great driver of our economy, but more importantly an essential aspect of American life.”
Many supporters say the legislation will help communities that depend on recreation – and that have been hard hit by coronavirus restrictions.
In Washington, the fund has helped protect public lands from Mount Rainier to Gas Works Park in Seattle. Washington has received more than $700 million since the fund started.
Conservation groups say the Land and Water Conservation Fund is an integral part of conservation efforts. Mike Stevens is the Washington state director for The Nature Conservancy.
“The predictability of permanent funding at that $900 million level means that communities and organizations around the country can really think long-term about what will help their communities the most,” Stevens said. “Without that predictability, it’s very difficult to take on big projects that will have the most impact for people.”
In Washington, he said, that could include projects like solidifying the status of the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway, which stretches from Puget Sound over Snoqualmie pass to Ellensburg.
Stevens said permanent funding could also help to “think through all sorts of access all over the state, in both rural communities as well as urban Puget Sound.”
The bill would also fund maintenance backlogs at places like national parks. That will help create jobs and allow federal lands to better welcome visitors, Stevens said.
“It helps create a set of assets that are open to the public in perpetuity. These are investments we need to make, just as we would make in our own homes,” Stevens said.
The bill passed by a vote of 73-25. It now heads to the U.S. House where it’s expected to pass.