U.S. Senate passes Great American Outdoors Act

Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon. Photo by Alexander Hormann

In a watershed moment for America’s public lands, the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act on June 17 by a vote of 73-25.

The legislation includes full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and billions of dollars to tackle a huge maintenance backlog on trails and other infrastructure on our nation’s public lands.

This is a game changer for the PCT and all public lands—as well for land conservation and our effort to permanently protect the private properties the trail crosses. About 10 percent of the PCT, including many properties within view of the trail, are privately owned. The LWCF provides money to purchase these properties from willing sellers, ensuring public ownership and permanent protection.

For years our public lands have been neglected during the Congressional Budget process and there is about $20 billion worth of deferred maintenance on the nation’s public lands and waters, including $11.9 billion in national parks and $5.2 billion in national forests. This means roads, trails, bridges, trailheads and other facilities are in disrepair.

The bill now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives for debate.

The LWCF is key to protecting the PCT

Over the past 18 years, almost $46 million in LWCF funding has been used to acquire and permanently protect just over 33,000 acres along the PCT.

For example. Last summer, the PCTA, The Trust for Public Land, the U.S. Forest Service, the Michigan-California Timber Co. and the Wyss Foundation partnered to protect 17 miles of the PCT along the Trinity Divide in Northern California. The timber company realized that the best use of its 10,300 acres — which includes the headwaters of four rivers, 10 lakes and mountain views — was for recreation and protecting vital habitat, not timber production. $10 million from the LWCF made the project possible.

Land acquisition protected the watershed for the Trinity River, above. Photo by Bob Wick of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The LWCF is considered the country’s most important conservation tool. Yet it continues to be underfunded. Since 1965, the LWCF has allowed Congress to spend up to $900 million annually for conservation projects. These include protecting trails like the PCT, important watersheds and forests, and buying properties for playgrounds, ballfields and urban greenways. Money has been spent in all 50 states.

The money is not from taxpayers, but from lease payments on offshore oil and gas development. Think of it as mitigation for the environmental cost of offshore energy production. Unfortunately, Congress has allocated the full amount only once, choosing to divert more than $20 billion to other budgetary needs over the life of the program. 

Outdoor recreation is a huge economic engine

Shortchanging our public lands is shortsighted given their value. According to government data released last year, outdoor recreation accounts for 2.2 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product and is growing faster than the overall American economy — surpassing other significant sectors including agriculture, mining, utilities, and chemical products manufacturing.

Help save Landers Meadow, a special place along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Landers Meadow, a special place along the Pacific Crest Trail, was protected by the LWCF. PCTA photo.

The simple fact is that when public lands go unfunded or underfunded, it’s hard to take care of them. Deteriorating roads means that access to public lands is diminished. When people can’t get to the places they want to recreate, they stop caring for them. That’s why the PCTA supports this bill. 

“It’s our responsibility to be good stewards of those treasures, so that they can be enjoyed by future generations of hikers, hunters, fishermen and other outdoor recreationists,” said Oregon Sen, Jeff Merkley, in a statement released after the vote. “I’m pleased that the Senate took an important step toward protecting Oregon’s and America’s great outdoor spaces by passing this legislation.”

While many members of Congress have voiced support for the Great American Outdoors Act and the full funding of LWCF, their votes are what will make the difference.We need them to act on behalf of the PCT and public lands.

Your voice matters

Please let your Congress member know how you feel about this legislation. You can find your representative by clicking here. Call them. Tell them to vote in favor of the Great American Outdoors Act.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.