Montana delegation celebrates signing of Great American Outdoors Act

The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.

The act has been touted by conservation and access groups as one of the largest pieces of conservation legislation to pass in decades. The bipartisan bill fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually and makes the allocation permanent in the budget. The bill also generates roughly $9.5 billion to finance backlogged maintenance on federal lands, including national parks, wildlife refuges, national forest and some tribal lands.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed the legislation into law.

“There hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect,” Trump said about the 26th president, who created many national parks, forests and monuments to preserve the nation’s natural resources.

The measure was overwhelmingly approved by Congress, passing the Senate 73-25 and the House 310-107.

Supporters say the Great American Outdoors Act is the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century and will create at least 100,000 jobs, while restoring national parks and repairing trails and infrastructure.

LWCF uses a portion of offshore oil and gas royalties to fund a variety of conservation and recreation projects across the country. While the program may be most recognized for federal land purchases, state grants go to multiple programs on the local level including municipal parks, playgrounds and athletic fields. Montana has received more than $600 million in LWCF funding during the past 50 years.

“This is a landmark accomplishment and a tremendous victory for conservation,” said Kyle Weaver, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president and CEO. “It simply cannot be overstated how vital this program is for our public lands, wildlife and outdoor recreation.”

The national parks portion of the legislation would tap oil and gas revenues from federal lands to pay for the backlogs, many of which are related to buildings and other infrastructure needs.

Among the bill’s congressional champions are Montana’s senators, including co-sponsorships from Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester. Rep. Greg Gianforte supported the bill but declined to cosponsor it, citing concerns that it could face amendments he did not agree with as it worked through the House.

“It’s a big win for conservation, it’s a win for jobs, there’s a significant infrastructure component here as we’re dealing with the maintenance backlog in our national parks, it’s a win for our outdoor economy which is very important in Montana, and really just a win for our Montana outdoor way of life, for wildlife habitat, for outdoor recreation, and for bipartisanship,” Daines said.

Daines and Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner are credited with convincing Trump to support the legislation at a White House meeting this year, even though Trump has repeatedly tried to slash spending for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals. Both Republicans are in competitive races this year, although Daines has described the bill’s advancement as the result of years of efforts. He said it was on his “short list” of largest accomplishments.

“I understand there’s politics, we’re coming up on an election, but the reality is this should not be about politics,” Daines said. “This is about protecting our Montana way of life, protecting our public lands – it’s something that I’ve grown up with as a kid that was fortunate to grow up in the Gallatin Valley, went to kindergarten through college in Bozeman – this is an important legacy we’re leaving behind for the next generation related to public access, and protecting the public access, and then addressing the care and maintenance in our national parks, to be better stewards of this tremendous investment we have, this asset that we call our public lands.”

Tester first introduced a bill to fully fund LWCF more than a decade ago and applauded Tuesday’s signing.

“This is a great day as the Great American Outdoors Act gets signed,” Tester said. “This is something that has been decades in process, something that’s going to ensure the outdoor legacy for our kids and grandkids and make sure that we have good hunting and good fishing and great access to the outdoors for hiking and running around where cellphones don’t work – it’s truly a great day.

“I’m very, very thankful that after my tenure here both in the state Legislature and at the federal level this bill is finally becoming law. It’s the right thing to do for our kids and our grandkids, it’s the right thing to do for us today, and certainly the right thing to do for the ecosystems across this great country.”

Gianforte was one of 81 Republicans to vote for the bill.

“The Great American Outdoors Act, which I proudly supported, provides dedicated, lasting resources to increase public access to our public lands, conserving them for generations to come,” Gianforte said in a statement. “I thank Senator Daines for his leadership in getting this historic bill across the finish line, and I thank President Trump for his support of our public lands and for signing this critical bill into law.”

Republican opponents of the bill brought a range of opposition. Some lawmakers cited concerns about growing federal land ownership or removing congressional oversight over spending. Others noted that the money isn’t enough to cover the estimated $20 billion maintenance backlog on federally owned lands. The bill also saw opposition from some Gulf Coast lawmakers who complained that their states receive too small a share of revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling that is used to pay for the conservation fund.