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ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Glenstone, Potomac, Maryland. PWP Landscape Architecture >

The Great American Outdoors Act is Now Law of the Land

Photo: Cane Creek Falls at Fall Creek Fall State Park / TN State Department of Environment and Conservation

On August 4, the president signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law, bringing years of advocacy by ASLA to a successful close. Thanks to enthusiastic action by landscape architects, this law passed through Congress with large bipartisan votes of 75-23 in the U.S. Senate and 310-107 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Great American Outdoors Act is a combination of two priorities that ASLA has been working on for years: fully and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and helping the National Park Service (NPS) address its nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog. This law creates many new opportunities for landscape architects to design and plan federal, state, and community parks and recreation centers.

Since its establishment in 1964, LWCF has been one of the most popular and bipartisan conservation programs Congress has ever created. LWCF is also one of the most prolific conservation programs in American history; every state, congressional district, and nearly every county in the United States is home to a LWCF project. LWCF is well-known for preserving, protecting, and providing access to national parks, other federal lands, wildernesses, scenic areas and rivers, forests, and natural resources. Landscape architects, however, know that LWCF is the only federal program that funds the design and construction of community parks and recreation centers. Many ASLA members access LWCF to create these public spaces that are so important to their communities, a fact that has become more relevant during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, LWCF had been consistently underfunded and occasionally allowed to lapse by Congress. LWCF is authorized to be funded at up to $900 million per year, yet it has only been fully funded twice in its 56 year history. Congress repeatedly raids LWCF for other non-conservation purposes. Additionally, Congress allowed the program to lapse multiple times, most recently in September 2018. To address these issues, ASLA has consistently worked with partners, such as the LWCF Coalition, to permanently authorize and fully fund this critical program. We achieved half of this goal in March 2019 when LWCF was permanently authorized as part of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, guaranteeing that it would never expire again. To address the funding issues the LWCF Permanent Funding Act was introduced in Congress in April 2019.

The National Park Service (NPS) is the crown jewel of America’s federal land agencies. The properties that NPS was created to protect and preserve have seen record visits year after year with over 300 million visits each of the past five years in a row. Despite these record-setting numbers, NPS has been habitually underfunded, causing them to defer or even cancel maintenance projects. These projects include the repair and/or replacement of aging visitor centers, water infrastructure, historic buildings, and docks in addition to transportation-related projects such as roads, bridges, tunnels, trails, scenic overlooks, and parking lots. Much of the infrastructure on NPS properties was built or last updated in the decade beginning in 1966, and some roads and tunnels are nearly a century old. As of the end of 2019, the maintenance needs had grown to nearly $12 billion.

To address this backlog, the Restore Our Parks Act was introduced in July 2018. This bill would create a Legacy Restoration Fund to pay for deferred maintenance projects. Up to $1.6 billion per year over five years would be added to this fund. Originally the Senate and House versions of these bills had one major difference—the Senate bill only funded maintenance projects at NPS, whereas the House bill also included the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). ASLA worked with the sponsors of these bills as well as coalition partners to advance these bills. When the new Congress convened in 2019, ASLA again worked with Congressional sponsors and partners to re-introduce these bills.

After months of negotiations involving Senate sponsors, the White House, and conservation groups—including ASLA—the Great American Outdoors Act was introduced in March 2020. This new bipartisan legislation combined the LWCF Permanent Funding Act and the House version of the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act. The language in this bill was nearly identical to its predecessors including NPS, BLM, FWS, and BIE in the deferred maintenance portions, but the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was added as well. Additionally, the Legacy Restoration Fund was authorized up to $1.9 billion per year to account for the other federal land agencies. As in previous versions, this legislation would bypass the appropriations process. Instead, every year the money would be directly deposited into LWCF and the Legacy Restoration Fund guaranteeing both programs are fully funded without a fight in Congress

The Great American Outdoors Act quickly garnered 59 sponsors and was on the fast-track toward Senate passage. With the backing of leadership in both parties as well as the Administration, the Great American Outdoors Act survived multiple procedural battles and passed the Senate on June 17 with a 75-23 vote. With momentum on the side of this legislation, a House companion was introduced on June 4 and was eventually sponsored by 253 Representatives. On July 23, just four months after its introduction, the Great American Outdoors Act passed the House with a 310-107 vote. With the president’s signature on August 4, the Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land!

This win would not have been possible without the advocacy efforts of ASLA members. Thanks to your support 2,500 members of ASLA's advocacy network sent over 6,200 messages in support of this law, reaching lawmakers in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. This was truly a momentous task, but ASLA members were clearly up to the challenge.

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