Great Outdoors Act means hundreds of millions of dollars per year for federal acquisition of private lands

Introduction by Editor

On June 8, a large group of livestock affiliates including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Public Lands Council and American Sheep Industry Association, presented a letter to U.S. Senate leaders warning of the consequences to private land owners, ranchers and farmers of provisions in the Great American Outdoors Act (GAO). As Greg Henderson wrote in Drovers, “The GAO Act as written creates more than $14 billion in new, mandatory spending and gives federal agencies free rein to spend $360 million per year solely to acquire new private land without any oversight from Congress, according to a statement from NCBA. This raises concern among the 48 livestock and natural resource groups who signed the joint letter, as the groups point out the blatant conflict by pairing the mounting disrepair of current land under federal control and allowing rampant acquisition without accounting for management of future land acquisitions.” Federal agencies have already proven themselves incapable of managing the land and resource with which they are charged. Yet this act gives LWCF unlimited funding and unchecked power to acquire more property, resources, water rights and grazing lands now privately held.

The full text of the letter and its signatories is below:


Dear Leader McConnell, Leader Schumer, Chairman Murkowski, and Ranking Member Manchin:

As the Senate proceeds with consideration of the Great American Outdoors (GAO) Act (S.3422), we urge you to retain your role in safeguarding public lands for the future of all Americans.

As introduced, the GAO Act, and every other bill that preceded it that contained similar provisions, is an irresponsible way to fix a very real problem. Currently, land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management face a staggering backlog of much-needed maintenance. Without question federally-owned and operated infrastructure needs serious attention, but the GAO Act does not provide a meaningful and lasting solution.

Federal agencies currently have more assets than they can afford to maintain. The GAO Act simultaneously recognizes and attempts to address this while also providing hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the government to buy more land through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This approach is counterproductive and will result in a larger federal estate that will require increasing maintenance over time. It’s also worth noting that the bill does nothing to change the way federal agencies prioritize maintenance of assets so that history does not repeat itself. Simply providing funding without action to prevent future maintenance backlogs will only result in compounding maintenance challenges.

Section 2 of the bill provides funding for maintenance on the assets the government already owns and cannot afford to fund, while immediately allowing for hundreds of millions of dollars allotted to new acquisitions in Section 3. When Congress permanently authorized LWCF in

2019, there was the recognition that Congress still had a responsibility to safeguard the American landscape and the American taxpayer against irresponsible spending. This responsibility was to be carried out through the annual appropriations process, during which Congress would evaluate proposed land acquisitions and determine the appropriate level of funding. Now, the Senate is poised to willingly abdicate their oversight of federal land acquisition, while providing the maximum amount of funding allowable into perpetuity.

The GAO Act provides for $900 million in mandatory funding for LWCF as a whole, meaning that at least 40 percent, or $360 million, each year will be eligible to buy land resources across the country. The federal government already owns more than 640 million acres, controlling a vast majority of the American West. More federal ownership is irresponsible, and in some places it will soon be impossible. In Nevada, federal agencies currently own more than 85 percent of the landscape, leaving precious little to support private enterprise.

To be clear, this bill radically increases the burden on the American taxpayer for years to come. Congress will still be required to confront federal maintenance needs, including mounting deferred maintenance costs, through the annual appropriations process. There will be fewer maintenance dollars to go around, meaning fewer dollars will be directed to parks in Maine, refuges in Wisconsin, and forests in Florida. If passed, the GAO Act sentences hundreds of millions of acres of American land and water to a poorly-managed future. We understand some of the historic benefits that have resulted from LWCF funding in local communities through the use of state-side funding. We also acknowledge that sometimes, acquisition can provide continuity for discrete landscape. We do not, however, believe that acquisition on this scale would be anything but an utter failure by Congress to perform its oversight role.

Consideration of this bill comes at a time when Congress has recently provided trillions of dollars in much-needed aid to individuals, businesses, and communities nationwide as a result of COVID-19. To add billions of dollars to mandatory spending for LWCF is both irresponsible for future Americans who will be forced to confront American debt, and irresponsible for the resource.

We stand ready to work with you to find a more responsible way to confront these challenges and urge you and your colleagues to oppose the GAO Act.

Sincerely,

American Sheep Industry Association

Association of National Grasslands

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Public Lands Council

Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association

Arizona Cattle Feeders Association

California Cattlemen’s Association

California Wool Growers Association

Colorado Cattlemen’s Association

Colorado Public Lands Council

Colorado Wool Growers Association

Florida Cattlemen’s Association

Idaho Cattle Association

Idaho Wool Growers Association

Indiana Beef Cattle Association

Indiana Sheep Association

Iowa Cattlemen’s Association

Kansas Livestock Association Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association

Maryland Cattlemen’s Association

Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association

Montana Public Lands Council

Montana Wool Growers Association

Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association Nevada Cattlemen’s Association

New Mexico Cattle Growers Association

New Mexico Wool Growers, Inc.

North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association

North Dakota Lamb & Wool Producers Association

North Dakota Stockmen’s Association

Ohio Cattlemen’s Association

Oregon Cattlemen’s Association

Oregon Public Lands Council

South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association

South Dakota Public Lands Council

South Dakota Sheep Growers Association

South Dakota Stock Growers Association

Texas Sheep & Goat Raisers Association

Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association

Utah Cattlemen’s Association

Utah Wool Growers Association

Virginia Cattlemen’s Association

Virginia Sheep Producers Association

Washington Cattlemen’s Association

West Virginia Cattlemen’s Association

Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association

Wyoming Stock Growers Association

Wyoming Wool Growers Association

See the complete letter here