Where the Great American Outdoors Act stands now

After passing with bipartisan support in August, the conservation law hits stumbling blocks. Here’s what may happen next.

 

In August, when President Donald Trump signed into passage the Great American Outdoors Act, Democrats warned that he was only doing so as a political favor for Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Montana’s Steve Daines, two vulnerable Western Republican senators who co-sponsored it in an attempt to keep their seats in the November election. (Gardner lost his bid for re-election.) 

Whatever Trump’s motives, the bipartisan bill was a huge victory for conservation, permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually and creating a separate pot of money, up to $9.5 billion, to be used for maintenance at national parks and other public lands over five years. Still it was a surprising shift for the Trump administration: Prior to announcing Trump’s support, his administration had previously recommended cutting the LWCF’s budget by 97% in the 2021 fiscal year. 

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, walk along the edge of Yellowstone Lake.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

But now that Trump’s term is nearing its end, the law’s implementation is coming into focus after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order last week laying out how the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be managed. The fund has two separate objectives: One is to provide funding to states for their own recreation and conservation priorities, and the other is to enable public-lands agencies to make land acquisitions, among other things. 

In a significant departure from the way the fund has been allocated in the past, states and municipalities will now be required to sign off on these federal land transfers.

In a significant departure from the way the fund has been allocated in the past, states and municipalities will now be required to sign off on these federal land transfers, which could make it difficult for agencies like the National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management to acquire land from private parties. For example, if the federal government wanted to use LWCF funds to buy land from a property owner with parcels in a national forest, a state governor or county board could conceivably block the transaction, said Randi Spivak, public-lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Many environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Pact, a coalition focused on resilience in intermountain communities, viewed the move as being anti-public lands and unfaithful to the spirit of the law that was passed. In an Interior Department statement, however, Bernhardt defended the changes as a way to give states more authority over the purchase of federal land. “These actions ensure land acquisitions will increase recreation opportunities, enhance conservation benefits and provide flexibility to our partners in states and local communities to ensure this investment is managed and allocated in the best possible manner.” 

This strategy of working around existing environmental laws by simply providing new guidance over their implementation has been tried before. Last January, the Trump administration used the same tactic to influence the scope and breadth of a bedrock environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act — by changing how it will be implemented in the future. 

But all of this recent drama around NEPA and the Land and Water Conservation Fund could amount to nothing after all, since a Joseph R. Biden administration will have the power to reverse course, either through similar executive (or secretarial) orders, or by rewriting the regulations. If Democrats pick up a majority in the Senate — a possibility that hinges on the Senate runoff races in Georgia) — Congress also could play a role through the Congressional Review Act, which allows it to overturn rules made by federal agencies.

Still, even as they look forward to the changing of the guard, environmental groups are calling on Bernhardt and the Trump administration to stick to the framework laid out in the initial legislation. Tracy Stone-Manning of the National Wildlife Federation told E&E News that her organization “look(ed) forward to working with a new secretary of the Interior to fix this order so the conservation program can reach its full potential.”

 Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...