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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Great American Outdoors Act Needs Your Support

Do you enjoy outdoor recreation near home and far away? And do you think the energy industry should compensate everyday Americans for natural resources that companies extract from public property?

Then you should call your congressman and suggest they support the Great American Outdoors Act when the House votes on H.R. 7092 later this month.

That’s the message hunting, fishing and other conservation organization are sending in newsletters and press releases since the U.S. Senate passed its version of the GAOA, 73-25, on June17. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, voted for the bill, but Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, opposed it.

Companion legislation is now gathering co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. As of July 10, the House version of the GAOA, or H.R. 7092, had 211 cosponsors, including Wisconsin representatives Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and Mark Pocan, D-Madison.

Wisconsin’s other six congressmen haven’t indicated how they’ll vote, but most expect Rep. Gwenn Moore, D-Milwaukee, to support it. In addition, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-De Pere, has previously supported full funding and permanent reauthorizing of the GAOA’s main component — the Land, Water and Conservation Fund — as well as funding deferred maintenance for the National Parks Service.

The House will likely vote on the GAOA the week of July 20. President Trump said March 3 via Twitter that he would support it: “I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

When President Kennedy first proposed the LWCF to Congress, the idea was simple: It’s basically a mitigation fund. Oil/gas companies pay lease fees for extracting the public’s offshore natural resources. States then draw on those funds to protect and conserve the public’s natural resources on inland properties.

When President Johnson signed the LWCF into law in 1964, it was authorized to receive $900 million annually in federal oil/gas royalties. Those fees add up. In 2019, for example, the Interior Department collected over $6 billion in royalties for offshore energy extractions. Even so, if the LWCF had received the full $900 million specified, that amounts to only 15% of that total.

If $900 million sounds high, realize that figure was set in 1964. Adjusted for inflation, it would be $7.44 billion in 2020. But the LWCF didn’t even get the pledged $900 million in 2019. Instead, it received $435 million, or 7.25% of the royalties.

And that’s been the pattern the past 54 years. According to a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service, Congress has only once delivered the full $900 million to the LWCF. By the time the Interior Department gets its crack at oil/gas royalties for conservation funding, Congress has usually poached about half of the allotment for other spending.

The GAOA’s purpose is to end that sorry history. If Congress passes the bill and President Trump signs it, the $900 million in annual funding would be guaranteed in perpetuity. Congress would still retain oversight on how the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education spend their shares of the $900 million, but it could no longer divert royalties to other programs.

In addition, the GAOA would provide $1.3 billion annually until 2025 to address over $12 billion in maintenance projects the Park Service has deferred because of budget cuts in recent years. The GAOA would also provide $285 million annually to the Forest Service; and $95 million annually to the BLM, F&WS and BEI to address their deferred maintenance projects.

Conservation leaders consider the GAOA a remedy for longtime neglect of public lands. “If our national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and BLM lands were a car, they’d need a new engine,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Back Country Hunters and Anglers in Missoula, Montana. “By diverting LWCF money all these years, the federal government hasn’t done basic maintenance on our public lands.”

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the GAOA enjoys strong bipartisan support, partly because it receives no taxpayer dollars.

“It’s really a logical, practical bill that benefits everyone, whether your interest is hunting, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, touring historical battlefields, or picnicking with your kids at city parks,” Meyer said. “Even though the LWCF has been funded at half-capacity since 1964, it’s paid for public projects in 98% of the nation’s counties. Wisconsin alone received $230 million for LWCF projects from 1965 through 2011.”

Meyer said that’s a good investment in Wisconsin’s $17.9 billion outdoor recreation industry. According to the LWCF Coalition, outdoor recreation in Wisconsin supports 168,000 jobs, generating $5.1 billion in wages and salaries that produce $1.1 billion annually in state and local tax revenues.

Plus, the LWCF itself has great Wisconsin roots. The late Joe Penfold, a Marinette native, helped craft the fund’s original legislation after President Eisenhower appointed him to the Outdoor Recreation Resource Review Commission in 1958. Besides the LWCF, Penfold’s commission created the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Penfold presented the legislation to Kennedy before his assassination in November 1963, and then Johnson, who subsequently signed it into law.

Tawney said both political parties like the GAOA because it’s good for conservation, businesses, the forestry industry, and everyday recreation. Its originating sponsors in the U.S. Senate were two GOP senators, Cory Gardner, Colorado; and Steve Daines, Montana; and among its co-sponsors were Republicans Richard Burr, North Carolina; and Lindsay Graham, South Carolina. Further, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, helped ensure its passage.

“People are saying this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for conservation and outdoor recreation,” Tawney said. “It’s also a unique opportunity to bring the country together on something during a contentious year in our history. It’s important to call congressmen to suggest they sponsor the bill, thank senators who voted for it, and question senators who opposed it.”

U.S. forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges and everyone who enjoys outdoor recreation would benefit if Congress and the White House pass the Great American Outdoor Act.Patrick Durkin photo

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