The SourceCivil Engineering MagazinePassage of Great American Outdoors Act promises greater funding for parks and infrastructure
Policy Briefing

Passage of Great American Outdoors Act promises greater funding for parks and infrastructure

By Jay Landers

For many years, conservation groups and others, including ASCE, have sought significant increases in funding for the U.S. National Park Service and other federal land agencies faced with growing maintenance backlogs. In a rare showing of bipartisanship, Congress handily approved over the summer the Great American Outdoors Act, which boosts funding for the agencies and revamps a key fund used to support the acquisition and protection of lands and waters across the country. In early August, President Donald Trump signed the legislation into law (P.L. 116-152), marking the final step in a long-term effort to help the agencies address deferred maintenance and repairs to their facilities and infrastructure.

In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, ASCE assigned a grade of D+ to the nation’s parks, a broad category that includes facilities owned and managed by federal, state, and local governments. Chief among the problems highlighted in the report card were the maintenance backlogs of various federal land agencies, particularly that of the NPS. 

In an April 2019 report titled Deferred Maintenance of Federal Land Management Agencies: FY2009-FY2018 Estimates and Issues, the Congressional Research Service notes that four federal agencies — the NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — had a combined deferred maintenance backlog of $19.38 billion in fiscal year 2018. Of this amount, $11.92 billion (62%) was associated with the NPS, $5.2 billion (27%) was attributed to the Forest Service, $1.3 billion (7%) was from the FWS, and $960 million (5%) was related to the BLM.

The funding levels of the NPS have failed to keep pace with the demands of maintaining and preserving its vast and aging holdings, which, according to an NPS fact sheet, include nearly 5,700 mi of paved roads, 21,000 mi of trails, and 25,000 buildings. The agency defines deferred maintenance as “repairs or maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures and facilities across the National Park System (that have) been postponed for more than a year due to budget constraints,” according to its website. (Read “Infrastructure Solutions: Public Parks Meet Community Needs,” Civil Engineering, May/June 2020, pages 50-57.)

The NPS categorizes the deferred maintenance into two general categories. The first — paved roads and structures, including bridges, tunnels, and parking areas — had $6.15 billion worth of deferred maintenance at the end of FY 2018. The second category comprises other facilities, including buildings, housing, campgrounds, trails, wastewater systems, water systems, unpaved roads, unpaved parking areas, utility systems, dams, constructed waterways, marinas, aviation systems, railroads, ships, monuments, fortifications, towers, interpretive media, and amphitheaters. This category had $5.77 billion worth of deferred maintenance at the end of FY 2018.

Heavy use also takes its toll on NPS facilities. In 2018, the agency hosted 318.2 million recreation visits, the third-highest total since recordkeeping began in 1904, according to a fact sheet from the NPS.

Introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in March, the Great American Outdoors Act helps address the deferred maintenance of infrastructure and facilities managed by the NPS and the other federal land management agencies by establishing the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. For FYs 2021-2025, this fund is to receive “an amount equal to 50 percent of all energy development revenues due and payable to the United States from oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy development on Federal land and water,” up to $1.9 billion annually, according to the legislation. 

Amounts deposited in the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund “shall be used for priority deferred maintenance projects” by the NPS, the Forest Service, the FWS, the BLM, and the Bureau of Indian Education. The funding is to be allocated on the following basis: 70 percent to the NPS, 15 percent to the Forest Service, and 5 percent apiece to the FWS, the BLM, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Of the funding received by each agency, “not less than 65 percent of amounts from the Fund shall be allocated for non-transportation projects,” according to the legislation. None of the funding may be used to acquire land, give bonuses to employees, or supplant discretionary funding made available for annually recurring facility operations, maintenance, and construction needs.

The other key component of the Great American Outdoors Act is its permanent full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Established in 1964, the LWCF supports the protection of federal public land and voluntary conservation on private land. The fund also provides grants to states and tribal governments for acquiring and developing land for public parks and other outdoor recreation areas. Much like the newly created National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, the LWCF is funded from a portion of royalties related to energy development, in this case earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing.

Although the LWCF has long been authorized to receive $900 million annually, congressional appropriators in the past typically have diverted much of this funding to other causes. To prevent such an outcome in the future, the Great American Outdoors Act stipulates that any money deposited into the fund shall be made available for expenditure “without further appropriation or fiscal year limitation.” 

On June 17, the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act by a vote of 73-25. On July 22, the House did the same, approving the legislation by a vote of 310-107. Trump signed the bill on Aug. 4. “The President signing the Great American Outdoors Act into law today completes decades of bipartisan work to secure full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and conserve, protect, and invest in our nation’s treasured places,” Gardner said in an Aug. 4 news release. “This is the greatest conservation achievement in generations, one that will benefit every state and help communities in need recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Addressing the maintenance backlog at the NPS and other federal land agencies “has been a longstanding legislative priority for ASCE,” says Emily Feenstra, the Society’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives. Over the years, “there’s been a growing awareness of the problem that the parks are facing when it comes to their own infrastructure,” Feenstra says. The Great American Outdoors Act is a “comprehensive piece of legislation that addresses it with some kind of long-term certainty,” she notes. The NPS is expected to receive $6.65 billion over five years as a result of the new law, Feenstra says.

In a June 8 letter to congressional leaders, Kancheepuram N. Gunalan, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE, the Society’s president, expressed ASCE’s support for the legislation. “The Great American Outdoors Act is a critical investment measure that will help raise our nation’s public parks D+ grade and reestablish our nation’s world-class infrastructure,” Gunalan said.

Conservation organizations also praised the legislation’s passage. “For decades, park facilities and historic assets have been deteriorating as a result of age and inconsistent annual funding, and the park service has had to triage limited resources,” said Marcia Argust, the project director for efforts to restore America’s parks at the Pew Charitable Trusts, in a July 22 news release. “Now the Great American Outdoors Act will give the park service a tremendous boost, enabling the agency to catch up with long-overdue repairs. . . . By restoring the integrity of our park sites and public lands, the Great American Outdoors Act will preserve our nation’s history, protect visitor access and safety, and prevent repairs from becoming more costly.” 

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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