What the Great American Outdoors Act Means for the Hiking Community

In August 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act, one of the most impactful pieces of conservation and outdoor recreation legislation in decades, became law. For years, American Hiking and the hiking community have advocated for full and permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Together we’ve worked to address the public lands maintenance backlog in order to expand access to the outdoors for all hikers, both in local communities and parks, forests, and wildlife refuges across the country. Read on to learn more about what this new law means for you and how your advocacy efforts made the bill a reality. 

What Impact will the Great American Outdoors Act Have?

Increased equitable access for communities that need it most

  • The Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program, which is funded through LWCF, has made progress in expanding access to outdoor spaces for communities in urban areas. Full funding of the LWCF will continue to support the ORLP program to ensure that our nation’s natural spaces are available and accessible to urban hikers, especially communities of color.  While we still need more funding for this program and passage of the Outdoors for All Act, permanent and dedicated LWCF funding will help to ensure that our nation's trails, public lands, parks, and open spaces remain protected and accessible for all communities for generations to come.

 

New trails and open spaces

  • LWCF has funded nearly 1,000 trail projects since its creation (like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and probably your favorite local trail). Full and permanent funding will ensure that thousands more trail projects will be created across the country along with conservation of our most treasured natural resources and lands.

 

  • LWCF is our nation's most important conservation and recreation program that has protected, preserved, and expanded the places you love to hike and recreate in nearly every state and every county in the U.S. for 50 years. Over the past five decades, it has touched every state, conserving national parks and forests, land by rivers, lakes and oceans, working forests, farms and ranches, fish and wildlife refuges, trails, and state and local parks. Full funding means these conservation efforts can continue. The next new trail, park, or recreation facility in your town could be the beneficiary of the LWCF.

 

Improved recreation access (trails, campgrounds, etc.) by fixing the maintenance backlog 

  • The Great American Outdoors Act will address more than half of the $22 billion public lands maintenance backlog at our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. The law will begin to address the long-term problems that are seriously hampering the public’s access to outdoor recreation. You may have experienced closed trails, out-of-service restrooms, campgrounds in poor conditions, and impassable roads while trying to hike on public lands. The Great American Outdoors Act will begin to address these overdue maintenance needs. Beginning later this year, and over the next five years, you’ll see projects that tackle the most pressing maintenance needs. If there’s an overdue maintenance project in your area, contact your local public lands agency and encourage them to include it as part of the Great American Outdoors Act efforts.

How did hikers achieve this victory?

This was a collective effort where the entire outdoor and conservation community came together and made their voices heard. American Hiking mobilized the hiking and trails community to advocate for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and address the public lands maintenance backlog through hundreds of congressional visits during Hike the Hill®, sending thousands of messages to Congress, and activating our nearly 400,000 social media followers and the more than 44 million people who hike each year in the US. American Hiking, along with a small coalition, was instrumental in securing an inclusive public lands maintenance solution that included the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Education prior to final passage of the bill (the National Park Service was already included). 

How much will this cost taxpayers and does it encourage new drilling on public lands?

The short answer is this law costs taxpayers nothing and doesn’t encourage more drilling on public lands. Here’s the long answer: Funding for the Great American Outdoors Act comes from royalties paid to the U.S. government by energy companies from existing on-shore and off-shore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, a system set up decades ago. Since 1964, when the LWCF was created, it has used revenues from the depletion of one natural resource - offshore oil and gas - to support the conservation of another precious resource - our land and water. Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies are put into this fund. The money is intended to protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects. Until the Great American Outdoors Act was enacted, Congress broke its own promise to the American people and diverted much of this funding to uses other than conserving our most important lands and waters. The funding for deferred maintenance comes from this same funding source. 

Was this really supported by Republicans and Democrats alike?  And why did it take so long?

Yes! The bill passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support passing 73-25 in the Senate and 310-107 in the House of Representatives and signed into law by the President. The effort to pass the bill was jointly led by both Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Manchin (D-WV), Rep. Cunningham (D-SC), and Rep. Simpson (R-ID), along with many others. 

Major legislative victories like the Great American Outdoors Act take a lot of time (typically years) and effort to generate support, organize the community, and build momentum for passage. The broader coalition laid the groundwork for LWCF and maintenance backlog efforts for a decade or longer and has been working towards this moment. 

GAO Becomes Law Banner