President Donald Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act the morning of Aug. 4. In a statement issued by Rep. Mike Simpson, the Idaho congressman who helped lead the bill to clearing the House of Representatives by more than 300 votes, the signing was described as “a historic day for public lands in the country.”
“This legislative effort has been a long journey dating back to when I first wrote the LAND Act. It is so gratifying to see this framework embraced in a bipartisan manner under the banner of the Great American Outdoors Act, and I thank the President for making this idea the law of the land,” he wrote.
Idaho is known for its national forests, but they face a hidden and growing problem: maintenance backlogs, which now have grown into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Local environmental advocates hope the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act by the Senate and House of Representatives will help alleviate that problem. The act would provide $9.5 billion for public lands infrastructure and would allocate $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. However, not all congressional delegates from Idaho supported the bipartisan bill. In fact, Rep. Mike Simpson was the only one who voted in its favor.
“It’s disappointing that the three members of the delegation chose not to support this bill because this brings money to help people access back country in Idaho,” said Craig Gehrke, Idaho state director of the Wilderness Society. “I would hope they would acknowledge the fact that work has gotten way far behind in Idaho, and it really needs a flush of money like what is going to come with this act, and so that’s another reason that this was a good deal for Idaho.”
Sen. Jim Risch has represented Idaho in the Senate for 11 years, and cast a notable vote against the bill as it moved through that body. He currently serves on the Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, and the Subcommittee for Public Lands, Forests and Mining.
Though he has been involved with and favored conservation legislation in the past, he voted against the passage of GAOA. According to Risch Press Secretary Marty Cozza, his decision to vote against the bill stemmed from concerns about creating a permanent program with mandatory spending and no annual oversight or requirement for local engagement.
Once signed into law, GAOA, which currently sits on the President’s desk awaiting signature, will take 50% of all government revenue from all fossil-fuel and renewable energy developed on federally owned land and waters for the next five years, and deposit it into a new fund called the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. According to one onlooker, Harvard Kennedy School’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy Linda Bilmes, it is “the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation.”
Gehrke said the other members of the Idaho delegation raised concerns that GAOA money given to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created by Congress in 1964 and permanently authorized in 2019, could be used to buy more federal land in Idaho.
However, Gehrke said this ignores the other tools the LWCF uses, such as land easements, which allow the public to use private land to get to public land. According to Gehrke, the LWCF has been successful in Idaho, which is why he was surprised when three out of four congressional delegates chose to oppose GAOA
The bill will distribute the funds thus: 70% of the amounts deposited in the fund for each fiscal year would be allocated to the National Parks Service, 15% to the Forest Service and 5% each to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education.
While most of the money will go toward addressing the backlogs in the nation’s national parks, Andy Brunelle, capitol city coordinator for the Intermountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, said the funds allocated to Idaho will still be “meaningful” in helping to address the backlog of road and trail infrastructure needs within its national forests. The Nez Perce-Clearwater and Idaho Panhandle National Forests in Idaho have the largest maintenance backlogs of any national forests in the country, with $144 million and $141 million respectively in deferred upkeep.
Simpson, a long-time environmental advocate for the state, said GAOA was written using the framework of his 2017 LAND Act, which also proposed funding to the LWCF and national parks to address their maintenance backlogs, though that bill never passed into law. He is optimistic about the impact GAOA will have on the nation’s future.
“Not only does this bill support hundreds of thousands of jobs, but it protects and maintains our public lands for generations that aren’t even born yet,” Simpson wrote in a press release. “The Great American Outdoors Act ensures that projects are vetted by Congress annually, funds the programs without using taxpayer funds, and continues important state-based projects like greenbelts, parks, and community pools. Bottom line, this bill is great for Idaho and public lands across this country.”