Great American Outdoors Act Brings Opportunities, Uncovers New Issues

Photo: John Skarie, 2022 Public Lands and Waters Photo Contest

By Charlie Booher

Punctuated equilibrium defines our history, and natural resource policy is no exception. Looking back at the history of public land management in this country, we’ve frequently experienced long periods of small or stepwise changes in laws, rules or regulations, separated by a short period of rapid activity that promulgates decades of results. We are lucky to have so recently experienced a punctuation in the 116th Congress.

In 2020, conservation, hunting and outdoor recreation organizations worked together to pass the Great American Outdoors Act – a piece of generational legislation that guarantees dedicated annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and created a program to address the deferred maintenance backlog on our public lands, called the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. Thousands of BHA members made phone calls, sent emails and contacted their members of Congress to get this over the finish line. Everybody loves a big win, but this one was absolutely huge. Because of this effort, LWCF receives $900 million annually in perpetuity, and the Legacy Restoration Fund has been authorized at $1.9 billion through fiscal year 2025.

LWCF was established back in 1964 and uses royalties from offshore oil and gas development to “safeguard natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.” These funds can be used to buy lands, improve public access or install important infrastructure for outdoor recreation. Money from LWCF has been spent in all 3,143 counties, parishes and boroughs in the United States. It is our greatest tool for conserving unique places and opening access to landlocked public lands across the country. But, despite being authorized at $900 million during the LBJ administration, the fund had only been appropriated that amount by Congress twice in the program’s history.

Money from LWCF has been spent in all 3,143 counties, parishes and boroughs in the United States. It is our greatest tool for conserving unique places and opening access to landlocked public lands across the country.

Concurrently, our national parks and public lands had racked up nearly $19 billion in deferred maintenance costs. The dedicated funds allotted in the Great American Outdoors Act’s Legacy Restoration Fund are divided among our federal land management agencies, with the National Park Service receiving 70% of the funds, the Forest Service receiving 15% and the other three agencies (BLM, BIA, and USFWS) each receiving 5%.

At the time, BHA President and CEO Land Tawney had this to say: “Dedicating full funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as addressing the maintenance backlogs of our public lands and waters is a promise years in the making through bipartisan leadership and stakeholder collaboration. Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act will lead to enhanced hunting and fishing opportunities on our public lands and waters. …Our country needs a win like this more than ever.”

For several years before this bill became law, we heard a common refrain that money was the sole limiting factor for federal agencies carrying out active management prescriptions and increasing capacity to meet growing resource needs in general. However, after the Great American Outdoors Act, a few rounds of covid relief, the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, money is no longer the only limiting factor. Process is. And implementation issues are hindering our ability to ensure these funds are invested in the right places – like opening landlocked public lands, building new shooting ranges and acquiring special places that enhance hunting and fishing opportunities, protect water resources and safeguard fish and wildlife habitats.

When resources are limited, process faults and inefficiencies are easy to dismiss, even though they are ever-present. However, when funding abounds, issues of process come into sharper light that can’t be ignored. It likely won’t surprise anyone to hear that navigating federal grants programs can be frustrating, as can procuring contracts and services from within a federal agency to enlist the help of NGOs and external partners. Existing hiring authorities across all federal management bureaus need to be reconsidered, streamlined and made more efficient. All of these obstacles are time consuming, stressful and create pinch points that restrict forward progress. Unfortunately, it’s just as frustrating for our hardworking federal agency leaders and frontline staff who want to move quickly and do good work – it’s also about as boring and wonky as public land policy gets.

The good news is that our community can help make a real difference. Several nonprofit organizations that deal in land acquisitions and purchasing easements, like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, use these funds to achieve their mission and are well situated to help improve processes specific to those areas.

“The Great American Outdoor Act provides permanent and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which ensures public access to outdoor recreation resources,” said Ryan Bronson, director of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “However, some of the existing bureaucracy rules have led to problems with appraisals that have scuttled significant projects. Getting these resources into the ground requires dedication and some further reforms.”

Photo: Jordan Lefler, 2022 Public Lands and Waters Photo Contest

Now, we hear that the agencies lack sufficient contract and grant personnel, or that the National Environmental Policy Act process is holding them up. We hear of problematic land valuation issues, appraiser deserts, where there aren’t sufficient federally approved appraisal professionals to help facilitate land transactions, and of procurement issues, too.

As we look to the future, reforms to these critical areas will likely be surgical, and there may not be an action alert about them, but there is a strong team of dedicated wildlife and public land advocates working to ensure that funding continues to be put to good use, applied in the areas of greatest need, and so that all of us who worked hard to secure these investments in the first place can be proud of what we’ve accomplished together as a country. It’s also imperative that we build a proven track record of success that will inform future resource needs and encourage new investments by the generations of public lands stewards that follow us.

We’re already beginning to see success stories from this generational investment. Just weeks before this magazine went to print, more than 5,300 acres of industrial timberland less than a mile from my home were added to our local national forest using these funds. Deferred maintenance on roads and bridges in my county are being rebuilt and resurfaced with these funds. Hunters and anglers like you and I are benefitting from these projects. And it’s only the beginning. However, it’s up to us to make sure this money is invested wisely and to create a new equilibrium that supports, defends and conserves our public lands and waters.


BHA member Charlie Booher is a conservation lobbyist at Watershed Results LLC and holds degrees in wildlife management, public policy, and natural resource conflict resolution from Michigan State University and the University of Montana. Outside of the office, you can find him hiking the mountains of Western Montana and re-learning how to hunt and fish in the Northern Rockies.


This story originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Backcountry Journal.



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