Conservationists Celebrate Big Win with Congressional Passage of Great American Outdoors Act

A sunrise at Eagle Falls and Emerald Bay - photo: Bob Tregilus CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (7/10/2020)

Outdoor recreation and conservation advocates are calling this week’s Congressional passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) a big win for the state of Nevada and the country. After passing the Senate in late June, the House passed the GAOA with bipartisan backing this past Wednesday. The bill is expected to be signed and passed into law by President Donald Trump later this year.

“We’re really excited that there was such huge bipartisan support for the Great American Outdoors Act with the vote in the House this week,” Hans Cole, Director of Environmental Campaigns and Advocacy at Patagonia said in a phone interview.

The GAOA will establish funds toward the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to address maintenance backlogs across a number of agencies, including The National Parks Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Education. 

According to the bill, over the course of fiscal years 2021-2025, deposits into the Restoration Fund will match 50 percent of all revenues derived from oil, gas, coal and alternative or renewable energy development projects on Federal lands

“It’s a part of this ethic that if you’re going to extract resources from the earth that will have an impact on the environment, then there needs to be a counterbalance where you reinvest some of the money from that extraction back into protecting the environment,” Cole said.

On an even greater scale, the bill also establishes permanent and full funding toward the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was originally signed into law in 1965 to safeguard natural areas and cultural heritage sites while generating outdoor recreation opportunities. Under the 1965 bill, funds deposited toward LWCF are derived from earnings of federal offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf, with an annual cap of $900 million.

Traditionally, however, funds allotted to LWCF have been siphoned off by Congress to address other priorities. In fact, Congress has appropriated full funding in the LWCF only once in over 50 years since it has been established

“[The LWCF] has always been shortchanged,” Cole said. “So the exciting thing that happened this week is that the Great American Outdoors Act provides full and permanent funding up to $900 million annually for LWCF, and that kind of money goes a long way.”

Money from the LWCF is used for conservation and recreation programs, as well as the protection of lands and parks at the federal, state and local levels. 

“[LWCF] is one of our most important conservation programs in this country, hands down,” Cole said. “It protects the whole spectrum from neighborhood parks to public lands all the way to wilderness. It’s critical for protecting places where our community, our customers and employees get out to recreate, camp, hike, climb, hunt, fish and all those things that are so important to our business and our community.”

Every county in every state across the country stands to benefit from permanent LWCF funding, something that Cole believes played a huge role in the GAOA’s bipartisan Congressional support.

“Every county in the US has received funding from this program over the past five decades,” Cole said. “So it’s no surprise that [GAOA] has such bipartisan and broad support. The money goes to acquiring lands, upgrading landscapes, forest management, habitat conservation and all these things that are required to protect and maintain our incredible public lands heritage in this country.”

Peter Guzman, President of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Nevada, agrees that GAOA received bipartisan support because it will benefit states all across the country.

“I think [it received bipartisan support] because everybody could use some funding in their states, especially with this pandemic,” Guzman said. “The outdoors is very important to the economy of a lot of states. So I think that this was [a bill] where people could come together and realize that this was good for everyone.”

Guzman believes that the guaranteed funding from LWCF will make a big difference for Nevada in particular, a state with the second largest public lands in the US.

“[The bill] could double the amount of funding our state gets for conservation projects,” Guzman said. “So that’s very exciting because we have over 80 percent public lands managed by the federal government and our state just doesn’t have the money to fund these projects, so getting that federal funding is critical.”

For Nevadans, that means more funding to enhance Nevada’s outdoor recreation industry, which relies on places like Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Valley of Fire State Park. 

“[This federal funding] is going to help maintain National Parks,” Guzman said. “It’s going to create opportunities to build new public lands and improve a lot of our existing parks and that is how you create great communities.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the state of Nevada generates $12 billion from outdoor recreation annually. Meanwhile, The Trust for Public Land conducted a ten-year study that showed every dollar invested in LWCF sees a $4 return for local economies.

“The other thing that is really important to [Patagonia] as a business is that this investment really pays back [to the community],” Cole said. “When you protect your public lands and have incredible Park resources in your community, that brings jobs, visitors and tourism for companies like us to sell products and services to support the local economy. It’s just a real boost, in addition to being great for the environment and great for people.”

Guzman believes the passage of GAOA will play a big role in strengthening Nevada’s local economy.

“Anytime you have federal funding, that creates jobs which is good for our economy,” Guzman said. “It’s also going to create and improve outdoor sites that people will actually come to Las Vegas to see and that strengthens our economy, too.”

Cole is particularly excited for GAOA’s passage as it relates to Patagonia’s primary global distribution center, which is located in Reno with over 1,000 employees.

“For us to be able to keep and attract employees and have them excited to be there in Reno, with a protected landscape of public lands in the state is huge,” Cole said. “We are definitely keen and excited that this has happened.”

The passage of GAOA also comes at a time when more people are finding their way outdoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“With COVID-19, people are getting out into the outdoors in record numbers right now because they don’t want to be indoors,” Cole said. “They want to be outside because there’s fresh air, you can get some space, you can have that social-distancing and still recreate and have a lot of fun.”

But the increase in traffic at national, state and local parks also brings to light the need for more funding that GAOA guarantees. 

“I think folks are noticing that our public lands need an investment,” Cole said. “We need the maintenance, the staffing and even just simple things like toilet or trash facilities. Those need to be taken care of because folks are valuing them even more with this current health situation.”

With the growing enthusiasm for outdoor recreation in the state of Nevada, Guzman is confident that funds allocated through this bill will be implemented quickly.

“I think we could see the effects of this bill right away,” Guzman said. “We have very active conservation groups out here that are going to help push this along. We also realize with the LatinX community growing so fast and really taking advantage of outdoor recreation, I think that you’re going to see things move fairly quickly.”

Consequently, the passage of GAOA gives both Guzman and Cole optimism for future conservation efforts in the state of Nevada and the country as a whole.

“I’m very excited about the future possibilities of the great outdoors in Nevada,” Guzman said.

“It’s a pretty historic moment in conservation and it’s a huge win,” Cole said. “I think the reason it passed was because people care about these lands and waters and their elected leaders know that we care about it. So I think that’s a good sign for things to come.”


Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.