By Paige Lewis
Outdoor spaces have been so essential to the health and well being of my family during these last few months of social distancing. We’ve taken time to visit close-to-home natural areas such as Rocky Mountain National Park, Hermit Park Open Space and many of our local Boulder County community parks.
Visiting these places during this historic time has only underscored the need to conserve, maintain and improve access to these places for all. I’m grateful to Congress and the president for their recent action to ensure parks, open spaces and natural areas will be expanded and sustained far into the future by passing and signing into law the Great American Outdoors Act.
Looking ahead, protecting important natural spaces and investing in their care will help create jobs, rebuild local economies and expand access to the outdoors that everyone has a right to enjoy. It seems that Congress has heard this message loud and clear.
In a giant step forward for conserving America’s treasured outdoor spaces, the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law this week. The law combines two conservation proposals that each have strong, bipartisan support – fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and making major investments to care for our national parks and other public lands.
The investments these programs will provide are critical to improving infrastructure and conditions in our national parks, while also helping states and communities secure and enhance open spaces both for the health and enjoyment of people and to sustain critical natural areas in the face of climate change. Right here in Colorado, LWCF has helped protect some of our most iconic landscapes like Great Sand Dunes National Park, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Rocky Mountain National Park.
The investments are not just investments in conservation, but in people – both their access to nature and their jobs and livelihoods that often depend on it.
The first part of the Great American Outdoors Act will provide full and permanent funding of $900 million each year for LWCF, the amount it is authorized to receive from offshore oil and gas revenues – not tax dollars. Currently, although the money is there, Congress typically only gives the fund less than half that amount.
The second part of the act will invest $1.9 billion annually for the next five years to help address a massive backlog of unmet maintenance needs at national parks and other public lands. The National Park Service alone reports more than 325 million visits each year, bringing opportunities for safe places to exercise, rejuvenate and improve our well being. And the economic benefits from those visits support local communities. Visitor spending at stores, hotels, gas stations and restaurants supports nearly 330,000 annual jobs and more than $40 billion in total national economic output.
This new law will result in additional job creation as the National Park Service ramps up infrastructure improvements on their portfolio of tens of thousands of roads and bridges, trails, historic buildings, employee housing and wastewater and electrical systems. Investments to fix these sites will generate nearly 110,000 additional infrastructure-related jobs.
All told, the Great American Outdoors Act will improve access to nature in places both close to home and worth traveling to when it is safe to do so – all while being a part of the solution for some of our economic, health and societal challenges.
Passing this legislation and quickly signing it into law was the right thing for our well being, our way of life and for future generations to enjoy the great outdoors. Thank you U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Reps. Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse, Jason Crow and Earl Perlmutter for your strong support. I look forward to seeing this law enacted and the great things it will bring to Colorado and the entire country.
Paige Lewis is the deputy state director and conservation director for the Nature Conservancy in Colorado.
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