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Montana Conservation Groups Celebrate Passage Of Great American Outdoors Act

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) makes an address Aug. 11, 2020 about the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act as Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly looks on.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) makes an address Aug. 11, 2020 about the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act as Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly looks on.

Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines Aug. 11 met with conservation and public lands groups in Gardiner to celebrate the recent passage of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act.

With the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone National Park in the background, Daines said it was public land that brought a divided Washington, D.C. together.

“It’s not always easy to get something that seems like relatively good common sense done, which is the Great American Outdoors Act, but your support made all the difference to ensure that we got it actually through Congress and got an outcome," Daines said.

Some conservation groups and public land policy experts have called the Great American Outdoors Act once in a generation legislation.

It’s impact is two fold.

One, it provides up to $9.5 billion over the next five years to tackle a long list of maintenance projects at national parks and other federal land.

“What you saw after the post-war was a substantial increase in visitation and a substantial correlating impact to the infrastructure in our parks across the country to the point where there was a call to action," said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.

In the 1950s, Congress provided funds for a 10-year plan to build visitor centers, employee housing, roads and bathrooms.

“So that’s a very good thing. The problem is 70 years later, we went backwards in many ways," Sholly said.

Visitation to America’s national parks has increased 10 fold since 1950. The National Park Service reports a backlog of infrastructure projects totaling nearly $12 billion. Yellowstone’s deferred maintenance alone is around $600 million. Paved roads, parking lots, bridges and buildings have the highest maintenance needs.

The new legislation also guarantees $900 million every year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The federal program, which uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling, provides grants to state and local governments to buy land for recreation and conservation, and build outdoor amenities

Clayton Elliott with the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited says almost three-quarters of Montana’s fishing access sites have been funded by the LWCF.

“And our vision to have one every 12 miles of navigable water in this state is going to be a whole lot easier with $900 million," Elliott said.

Since its creation in 1965, Congress has authorized full funding for the LWCF only twice. The Great American Outdoors Act ensures money intended for the fund can’t be siphoned off for non-conservation government spending.

Dick Dolan with the Trust for Public Land says that certainty makes it easier to work with landowners on conservation easements and purchases.

“It really, really was a pain in the neck, actually, to get to that point where you had someone really interested, you were about ready to get the deal started and then to have to say to them, ‘but of course, it all depends on what Congress is going to do with LWCF next year, or the year after," Dolan said.

He says the new legislation will accelerate the conservation of clean, cold water, working forests, public lands and access across the state and the country.

Some groups, like the Wild Montana Action Fund, are celebrating this legislation but say this moment doesn’t reflect Daines’ public lands record.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester, a co-sponsor of the Great American Outdoors Act, introduced the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act in 2009 to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the LWCF. He has re-introduced the legislation every session for 10 years.

Tester said in a press release Tuesday he’s calling on Congress to keep the public land support going and make a decision on the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. It would expand federally designated wilderness in northwest Montana and allow some snowmobile and mountain bike use on public lands in the area.

Part of the LWCF money is available immediately while the rest of the funding from the GAOA will become available Oct. 1, Fiscal Year 2021.

The post was updated Aug 12 to add "part of the" LWCF money is available immediately, and to change "GOAA" to "GAOA." YPR regrets the error.