Bipartisan support sends the Great American Outdoors Act to the president’s desk

In a rare bipartisan move this month, lawmakers passed the Great American Outdoors Act — though President Donald Trump hasn't yet signed it.

BIG BEND – While Big Bend National Park has seen record visitation in recent years, funding has remained tight and needed maintenance has been delayed. The park isn’t alone in feeling the strain, but this month, signs of relief were on their way. Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which would establish the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, to be used to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands.

While the bill hasn’t been signed into law by President Donald Trump, key members of his administration, including his daughter Ivanka Trump, have spoken favorably of the legislation and expect its signing.

According to the Department of the Interior, “In March, President Trump called on Congress to send him a bill that fully and permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund and restored our national parks, and he would sign it into law.” The act establishes a new fund, providing $6.65 billion for deferred maintenance at the national parks over five years.

According to Cary Dupuy, Texas regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park System’s maintenance backlog “has reached an all-time high – more than $12 billion in needed repairs to crumbling roads, trails, restrooms, visitor centers and other infrastructure,” she said. “Critical repair projects have been put on the backburner for decades, and now our parks are reaching a breaking point.”

“NPCA, park advocates and communities across the country have spoken out for many years urging Congress to fix our public lands and preserve America’s legacy, and now, we are all able to see the results of this advocacy in significant funding for our national parks and public lands,” said Dupuy.

An initial list of funded projects for FY 2021 is expected within a few months. In Texas, the needs are apparent: Big Bend National Park has the largest amount of deferred maintenance of all the federal lands in Texas, with $101 million in total maintenance needs, $90 million of that being deferred maintenance, according to a fact sheet compiled by the National Park Service. Guadalupe, in comparison, needs $11 million total, and Fort Davis National Historic Site needs $7 million.

Big Bend, along with Guadalupe Mountains National Park, needs road repairs and structure maintenance. Last year, the Castolon fire in BBNP destroyed and damaged structures in the park’s historic district, which now need restoration. Buildings at the nearby Fort Davis National Historic Site need work, too.

The federal investment in parks could also be a boon to a struggling United States economy facing unemployment challenges. A study completed by the PEW Charitable Trusts concluded that “addressing the National Park Service’s $11.6 billion maintenance backlog would create or support nearly 110,000 infrastructure-related jobs.” That included an estimated 1,582 jobs in Texas.

While NPCA is excited to see deferred maintenance be addressed, they were also glad that the bill’s language prevents future development in parks and public lands, “permanently protecting the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources,” said Dupuy. Along with those provisions, the bill increases funding to build recreational features on federal lands, providing new outdoor enjoyment for communities across the country.