If Americans took our national parks for granted before, they probably don’t anymore. Long weeks in COVID-19 lockdown, it turns out, have a way of renewing your appreciation for outdoor adventure. And with air travel and resort vacations in a holding pattern, many more families will be taking road trips this summer, Griswold family style (minus, hopefully, the unfortunate death of Aunt Edna).
The heightened appeal of natural places and the need for them may have even played a role in motivating federal lawmakers to overcome partisan divisions to pass legislation for all of us.
Last week, the Senate approved a measure that will be good for national parks and public lands not only now, but for years to come. The measure ensures that the Land and Water Conservation Fund gets the $900 million it is supposed to get every year. It establishes a permanent funding source — a share of federal royalties for offshore oil and gas drilling. It also provides $9.5 billion to address a mountain of deferred maintenance.
The legislation, which President Donald Trump has promised to sign, now goes to the House of Representatives, where approval is expected.
The conservation fund was created in 1965, and it has helped finance some 41,000 projects in all 50 states. The Wilderness Society says it has been “America’s most important conservation funding tool.” Last year, Congress approved a permanent reauthorization. But the fund has often gotten far less than its allotted share. Over the years, reports the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, Congress has diverted $22 billion from it to spend on other items.
At the same time, national parks and other public lands have accumulated a $19 billion maintenance backlog. Roads, trails, bathrooms, campgrounds and other facilities have deteriorated. Money is also needed to acquire land to protect sites that are vulnerable to nearby development.
Meanwhile, the number of visitors rose by 16% just in the past decade — until the pandemic forced the shutdown of more than 200 National Park Service sites. But with parks reopening and Americans eager to find safe forms of recreation this summer, the pressure of visitor traffic on facilities will resume.
That’s why this bill is so important, and why it attracted broad support. Former secretaries of the interior from both parties have endorsed it. More than 850 organizations, from the American Hiking Society to the Illinois Division of the Izaak Walton League to the Sierra Club, have endorsed it.
The 73 senators who voted for the legislation included a majority of Republicans. Among those on board are GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as well as Indiana’s Todd Young and Missouri’s Roy Blunt.
“Funds provided in this bill will secure these vital resources,” the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition said in a letter to congressional leaders, “while preserving water quantity and quality, sustaining working landscapes and rural economies, increasing access for recreation for all Americans no matter where they live, and fueling the juggernaut of our outdoor economy.”
Not only hikers and sightseers but hunters, birders, anglers and canoers gain from these outlays. National park visits, the coalition says, support more than 329,000 jobs and generate $40 billion in annual economic benefits. Much of the spending will help revive communities that depend on park visitors for business, which have been badly hurt as the pandemic closed down tourism.
We’re not talking only about iconic sites, such as the Grand Canyon, the Boundary Waters and the Great Smoky Mountains. There are also benefits close to home. This year, the fund includes $1 million for the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge here in Illinois, along with Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It has previously provided money for Illinois sites ranging from the Shawnee National Forest to Chicago’s Jackson Park.
It’s not every day that our leaders in Washington can get behind a measure that invests wisely in ways that will pay off for decades. With it, future generations of Griswolds — ahem, Americans — will have as many opportunities to explore and enjoy the outdoors as we do.