UPDATE: The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law by President Trump on July 23, 2020
July 23, 2020
For Immediate Release
Ranchers and stockmen alarmed by implications of the Great American Outdoors Act
Maintenance backlogs, decayed infrastructure and environmental destruction in America’s national parks, monuments, and other federal land designations inspired the creation of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). S. 3422 passed the U.S. Senate on June 17 with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. The bill promises to improve maintenance at federally controlled visitor attractions, recreation areas and wilderness areas, and bring infrastructure up to date.
The GAOA has received praise and support from diverse groups, including hunters’ and sportsmen’s groups, conservation organizations, and many local governments. But despite its vaunted title and ideals, the GAOA is not without complications, especially for some private property owners, western ranchers and other enterprises which depend on access to public lands.
The GAOA permanently encodes yearly spending for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at nearly a billion dollars. This fund is used primarily to purchase private lands and transfer them into government control in the form of conservation easements or land trusts.
On June 23, the National Association of Counties (NACo) reported in a blog post:
“Additionally, S. 3422 will make the LWCF program a mandatory spending program at approximately $900 million annually. Established in 1964, the LWCF is funded by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas development in federal waters. Last year, Congress permanently reauthorized LWCF but the program is still subject to the annual congressional appropriations cycle, where it is rarely fully funded. Additionally, at least 40 percent of LWCF funds are directed to state and local governments for local parks and other conservation projects.”
The fact that LWCF spending would become “mandatory” has troubling implications since congressional oversight would no longer be required for the fund to be reauthorized in perpetuity. Unfortunately, this exposes LWCF funds to the kind of fraud and abuse the Trump administration has been tackling with its “Drain the Swamp” agenda.
Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) sounded the alarm about the processes under which the GAOA was written and passed through Congress. In a fiery speech on June 11, prior to the act’s passage, he says:
“It is telling that the bill we’re considering this week, called the Great American Outdoors Act, was written behind closed doors and is now being hermetically sealed, walled off from amendments by the American people’s elected representatives.
“Forget the theatrics in Seattle—this bill is the real ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.’
“In its current form, it enables the federal government to purchase new lands in perpetuity – without accountability, oversight, or any measures to make sure it can actually care for the land that it owns…perpetuating, and worsening, our already problematic federal lands policy.
“This policy will have one overarching impact: to make life easier for politicians and bureaucrats, and harder for the Americans they ostensibly serve….
“The point of this body is to take imperfect bills to the floor, and come together so that we can hone and fine-tune them. The Senate is supposed to have an open debate and amendment process, precisely so that we can raise concerns, find solutions, and arrive at compromise and consensus.” (emphasis added)
Sen. Mike Lee represents one of the few states, Utah, that has made serious efforts to transfer control of its federally controlled public lands into the hands of state land-use agencies. This is reflected in the amendments—which were ultimately rejected—offered by Sen. Lee. His speech continues:
“One of my amendments would require state legislative approval for any land acquisition proposed in that state, so that land acquisition would be something Washington does with the states rather than to the states.
“Another of my amendments would require the federal government to dispose of current federal lands before acquiring any new ones— forcing land agencies to exercise fiscal responsibility and prioritize which lands they keep under their control.
“I’ve also got a number of amendments that would reform the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process to help address the maintenance backlog on neglected land Washington already owns.
“And, finally, I have an amendment to support Utah’s interests under the Antiquities Act. Right now, other states are protected from unilateral land grabs by the federal government for designation of national monuments, and because 28 percent of the national monument acreage designated in the 50 states over the last 25 years has been in Utah, my state is due the same kind of protections that Wyoming and Alaska already enjoy.” (emphasis added)
Calling the act a “shortsighted mistake,” Sen. Lee exposed another problematic element of the GAOA in the fact that it has been pushed through Congress largely as a “feel-good” bill, without proper scrutiny from the public and lawmakers, or discussion and debate about its provisions, some of which appear to be hidden from the very senators who voted on the bill.
Alarmed by its hasty passage and lack of public input, on June 8, a group of 48 cattle and stockmen’s organizations penned a letter to the Senate condemning the Great American Outdoors Act’s spending provisions, lack of representative oversight, and potential for creating vast new regions of poorly maintained federal lands. The letter states, in part:
“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 [its] 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 stateside 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.” (emphasis added)
RANGE magazine holds with the principle that the best stewardship of lands and natural resources is performed by those whose lives and livelihoods depend directly upon those lands and natural resources. The hastily passed and perhaps ironically named Great American Outdoors Act is popular with politicians in D.C. and groups which benefit from federal acquisition of lands for purposes of protection and conservation, but ranchers and other agricultural operators, especially those in the West where more than two-thirds of lands are already under federal control, vehemently oppose it. Decades of federal control have not improved our nation’s historic landmarks and natural wonders, but have instead led to their destruction through overuse, misappropriation of funds, and neglect. Written “behind closed doors,” the GAOA in its current form will likely lead to a perpetuation of the degraded environmental conditions and crumbling infrastructure now burdening the National Park System. The last thing America needs are more poorly managed federal lands.
Today the GAOA awaits only the president’s signature to become law. You can read the act by going to https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3422. To submit comments to President Trump regarding the act, please visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/.
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For more info, check these GAO stories by Dave Skinner—“Wrong, Wrong Ago” and “Where Did the Wild Lands Go?”—at http://rangemagazine.com/features/spring-12/range-sp12-wrong_ago.pdf.