WASHINGTON — The Senate has approved a bipartisan bill that would double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks.
The 73-25 vote on Wednesday sends Great American Outdoors Act to the House, where approval is expected. It would be the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century. The bill would spend about $2.8 billion per year on conservation, outdoor recreation and park maintenance.
"America’s hundreds of millions of acres of public lands are the result of hundreds of years of exploration and conservation,'' said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell, R-Ky.
The Senate vote will "ensure this inheritance will stand the test of time for generations of Americans yet to come,'' McConnell said, urging the House to pass it quickly.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said the bill will create at least 100,000 jobs, while restoring national parks and repairing trails and forest systems.
Those measures are especially needed now, when communities surrounded by public lands have high unemployment rates because of shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Gardner said. “This is an economic and jobs package as much as it is a conservation package,'' he said, adding that Americans who have been shut in by the pandemic ”are ready to get into the great outdoors.’’
Sen. Steven Daines, R-Mont., who has pushed for the bill with Gardner, said it "will help protect public access to our public lands and supports our national parks. It preserves and protects our Montana outdoor way of life.''
Gardner and Daines are among the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, and each represents a state where the outdoor economy and tourism at sites such as Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks play an outsize role.
The lawmakers persuaded President Donald Trump to support the bill even though he repeatedly tried to slash spending for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals. Trump has tweeted in favor of the lands bill, saying it "will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.''
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.., said permanently and fully funding that fund "will be a monumental victory for conservation and the places where we all get outside.'' He cited studies showing that each dollar spent by the fund creates an additional four dollars in economic value.
Heinrich said visitors cannot enjoy national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite “if the bathrooms don’t work, if the trails and campgrounds aren’t open, or if the roads are in disrepair. These places that we all cherish deserve better.''
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., credited a “new coalition” of lawmakers from both parties who support conservation and public lands.
“We’ve made people aware of the juggernaut that the outdoors economy has been,″ Cantwell said, noting statistics showing that outdoor recreation and tourism supports $887 billion a year in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs, much of it in the West.
“America deserves a break right now, and the outdoors is restorative,″ Cantwell said.