Outdoor Corner: Great American Outdoors Act

Lyle Johnson

With the name of The Great American Outdoors Act, what could go wrong? Heck, in March, “President Trump called on Congress to stop kicking the can down the road, fix the aging infrastructure at our national parks and permanently fund conservation projects through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

Joe Wiley caught this trophy cutthroat trout while fly fishing the South Fork of Snake River in southeastern Idaho in late July.

This could be a big shot in the arm for all Americans and even foreign tourists who enjoy the outdoors in some form or fashion. The bill was sponsored by Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. It had 59 cosponsors in the Senate, 42 Democrats, 15 Republicans and two independents.

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines called it the “legislation of a generation,” and Michigan Democrat Rep. Debbie Dingell said the legislation supports  “twin goals of protecting America’s crown jewels and repairing deteriorating infrastructure.”

At a time when support from both parties for any legislation is at an all-time low, how could a bill this popular be nothing but good? The bill ran through the Senate first — introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado — and passed with 73 votes, then, last week, cleared the House 310-107.

Even better, none of the funding in the bill would come from taxpayer dollars. Instead, programs would be funded by royalties from energy developments on federal lands and waters. “This concept has been in place for decades, directing royalties that aren’t obligated for other services into funds for priorities repairs,” Marcia Argust with Pew Charitable Trusts.

Olinde; This catfish was caught by Bryson Olinde (age 10) on July 27th. He is the son of Brandon and Cheri Olinde of St. Amant and is a 5th grader at Lake Elementary School.

So here’s what the bill will help to accomplish. The National Park Service accounts for 84 million acres of land at 400 different sites. But as of 2019, there was $11.9 billion worth of maintenance and repairs needed that is on the back burner. The bill will direct up to $6.65 billion to priority repairs and up to $3 billion for other agencies like the Fish and Wildlife service.

The bill would irrevocably offer $900 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund each year. This fund sometimes gets shifted by Congress for other priorities. By fully funding these projects, all Americans, especially hunters, will have access to what had been landlocked public lands.

The bill received so much support from sporting organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk foundations, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Safari Club International, among others.

Even White House adviser Ivanka Trump and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visited Colorado for a two-day tour to highlight the legislation, delivering remarks at Rocky Mountain Park.

Just to add some icing to the cake, according to the Department of the Interior, the new funding would create an additional 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. it would also drive tourism to help local communities surrounding the national parks.

Could we just stop here? There could certainly not be anything lurking in the shadows that could be sinister in this piece of legislature. Well, we can’t just read the headlines to discover the rest of the story.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said his state would be “disproportionately harmed” by the legislation. Lee expressed concerns over the implications of ever-expanding federal land ownership, the transparency of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, inequity of natural resource revenue-sharing between the federal government and the states, as well as the cost.

“The federal government already owns too much land. The last thing we should be doing is enabling the federal government to acquire more land without any scrutiny from Congress,” Lee stated. He also called for the legislation to be amended. Just in case you think he might be a little over-concerned, our Federal Government already owns 70 percent of the state of Utah.

“At a time when the federal government is running deficits of almost $1 trillion a month, it is absurd that Congress would pass a bill that would make spending for more land acquisition mandatory. Why should federal land acquisition be made mandatory before benefits for veterans? Or funding for soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines?” Lee wrote on his Facebook page.

Another Utah Republican, Rob Bishop, urged his colleagues to vote down the legislation, saying there will not be enough energy royalties during the coronavirus pandemic to fund the spending. Bishop initially introduced a standalone bill to fund park maintenance.

The federal government already owns far too much land – 640 million acres or more than one-quarter of the country.  It owns far more land than it can adequately manage and maintain, as is evidenced by the need for a special appropriation of $9.5 billion to address half the maintenance backlog. Federal land is both an economic and environmental burden to rural counties, as the federal government does not pay local property taxes on the land.

This action would turn the Land and Water Conservation Fund of 1965 into a trust fund not subject to annual congressional appropriation.  It would authorize $900 million annually in perpetuity to be spent mostly on federal and state government acquisition of private land.

Hey man, I love the outdoors, and on the surface it seems rather reasonable that our government acquires a little land for us to hunt, fish and just enjoy. But not 25 percent of the country and thirsting for more. It’s not just for the outdoors. Most of it is to collect royalties.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Will Rogers, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” So until next time, remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. Be safe in the outdoors and may God truly bless you!