America’s national parks are time capsules of sorts; set aside generations ago, these incredible lands allow us to walk the same paths and see the same sights as those who came before us. Just as important, they are a marker of our priorities – a physical representation of a core human responsibility: passing on a better world to our children.
Unfortunately, we’ve been neglecting this obligation for decades. Our national parks are quite literally being loved to death – after decades of widespread use and insufficient investments, these American treasures face a $12 billion maintenance backlog. Roads are crumbling, facilities are wearing out, and important projects are being postponed indefinitely. We haven’t done enough, and our inaction is a threat to the future of “ America’s best idea.”
That changes now. Last week, the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan bill that makes massive changes to protect and preserve our national parks for future generations. It’s no exaggeration to say that this bill is one of the most important works of conservation of the last half century – and its benefits will be felt for years to come.
Included as part of the legislation is the Restore Our Parks Act – a bipartisan proposal I first introduced with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, in 2018. Our bill takes existing funds the government receives from energy development on federal lands and uses them in paying down this maintenance backlog. It’s simple symmetry – the money comes from use of the land, so it’s only right to put it right back into protecting these lands for the future.
The proposal makes economic sense, too, because national parks play a vital role in regional economies. Earlier this month, studies conducted by the National Park Service showed that national parks generate $41 billion in economic activity per year – and, if passed, the Restore Our Parks Act will support more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs nationwide.
Maine people experience this impact every summer; when visitors come to explore Acadia National Park, the economic benefit for the region is over $300 million a year. (Unfortunately, of course, this won’t be the case this year because of the pandemic, but hopefully this will soon be behind us.) Investing in these lands benefits our economy today, and leaves these lands safe for tomorrow – a win-win.
The Great American Outdoors Act won’t only preserve the rocky coastline of Acadia or the canyon walls of Zion, it also supports, protects, and expands the welcome green space of your neighborhood park — green space that has become even more appealing during this pandemic. The Great American Outdoors Act includes full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. LWCF is a widely popular program, and has done vital work in Maine – since it was created in 1965, it has invested $191 million across the state of Maine.
However, just because something is right doesn’t mean Congress will support it. Even though the program is popular with both parties and overwhelmingly successful, funds that should rightfully go to the program are often diverted elsewhere, or used as leverage in a wholly unrelated debate. As a result, in the 55 years since the LWCF was established, Congress has only fully funded its work twice.
That’s an embarrassment. But now, it can be a problem of the past. Once the Great American Outdoors Act is signed into law, the LWCF will be separated from these unrelated fights, allowed to continue its good work with full funding, and without political distractions.
Through these provisions, the Great American Outdoors Act will make an immediate impact on both our economy and our quality of life. But the reason this legislation is so important is not only what it will accomplish today but what it means for our children and grandchildren.
Someday, 100 years from now, a family will watch a sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain or a sunset from a mesa in Utah, or camp in the Great Smoky Mountains, or swim in the local creek down the road. They won’t know the name Angus King, or any of my Senate colleagues who’ve fought on both sides of the aisle to pass this bill. What they will know is what we’ve done. It will surround them – their great, uniquely American inheritance that we protected for them. They’ll be able to create lasting memories, and – hopefully – they’ll do their part to protect these lands so those who come after can experience the same joy, the same wonder, the same awe.
This is truly a legacy for all of us.
Angus King represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.