Secretary Ken Salazar

Reflecting on the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act

Having dedicated much of my life to conserving our nation’s lands and waters and to reconnecting people—especially young people—to the outdoors, it brought me immense joy to see the Great American Outdoors Act pass the Senate with such substantial bipartisan support. Even in these most uncertain of times in our country, our public lands serve as a steadfast symbol of unity.

The Great American Outdoors Act builds on a foundation created by President Obama and the Department of Interior a decade ago. In 2010, we launched the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, striving to make our federal government a better partner and support community-driven conservation and outdoor recreation efforts. We created more than 100 projects under the banner of America’s Great Outdoors. Nearly a quarter of those projects restored and provided recreational access to rivers and other waterways around the US. Another 23 of them resulted in the construction of new trails and improved recreational sites. We created and enhanced parks in our cities, too, and kickstarted initiatives to educate young people and connect them to nature. I am proud to say each of these efforts was grassroots and locally driven—an unprecedented approach for our federal government.

It was this work, that helped set the stage for legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act to garner such tremendous public support. Last month, more than 800 conservation groups from around the country sent a letter to congressional leadership supporting the passage of the Act. Then, to bolster this call to action, five former Secretaries of Interior wrote to Congress, urging them to pass the bill with no amendments. It worked.

The Great American Outdoors Act makes a commitment to public lands, the likes of which has never been made before in the US: $900 million, annually and in perpetuity, to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This fund provides monies and matching grants to federal, state, and local governments for the acquisition of land and water, and easements on land and water, for the benefit of all Americans. It is intended to support recreation and to protect our natural treasures in the form of public lands. It is critical to ensuring future generations of Americans can enjoy all the opportunities of the outdoors.

The Great American Outdoors Act also sets aside $9.5 billion to tackle the staggering and longstanding maintenance backlog in our national parks—which is presently estimated to be at $20 billion. Maintaining the roads and bridges, visitor centers, historic buildings, trails, and campgrounds for more than 300 million annual visitors is an enormous task, and one that has been increasingly kicked down the road in recent years. By committing these funds now, we can avoid, at least in part, passing this burden on to future generations.

Lastly, this act provides much needed stimulus to an important industry. In recent months, jobs that depend on tourism in our national parks, forests, and wilderness areas have seen the same downturn many other industries have experienced. The funding committed to these places through the Great American Outdoors Act is expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs, aiding in the recovery of the communities who welcome us into their vast and iconic backyards.

As we’ve reckoned with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re reminded anew of the importance of our public lands and access to the outdoors. I applaud the current Senate for the passage of this important Act, and eagerly await the final hurdles to its enactment as the law of the land.