Commentary: The Great American Outdoors Act would have lasting economic impact

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alese Rhodes from Tri-cities Washington State, and Debbie Schorzman, Portland Oregon, take a selfie at Sunset Point, in the in a nearly empty Bryce Canyon National Park, Wednesday May 6, 2020

In March, the U.S. Senate introduced one of the most important conservation and recreation infrastructure bills: The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). Since then, our nation has changed drastically. Still, the outdoor industry is working for our small businesses, rural communities and national outdoor recreation heritage.

Current economic and self-isolation situations have made the GAOA more significant than ever. If signed into law — which the president has already committed to do — this bipartisan legislation would improve the economy, create jobs and strengthen the vitality of our public lands and waters for years to come. It would also help our country heal mentally and physically.

The GAOA includes the Restore Our Parks Act, which prioritizes fixing the $20 billion maintenance backlog on our public lands and waters and improving outdoor recreation facilities like campgrounds, docks, restrooms, trails, roads and more. This deferred maintenance funding will support the sustainability of recreation on National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management lands and waters as well as support the Bureau of Indian Education. It’s a smart investment, as a National Park Service study shows that for every $1 invested in national parks, $10 is returned to the economy.

The GAOA also ensures full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for the first time in 50 years. With the nation’s unemployment rate at nearly 15 percent, these conservation projects create jobs while allowing for social distancing through new recreation access and protecting our natural resources. Maintenance backlog projects would also boost employment through programs like youth and veteran conservation corps, established during the Great Depression to put millions of young men to work building park infrastructure.

Today, there are more than 130 nonprofit or state-operated corps across the country that annually engage more than 22,000 young people and veterans in projects like those funded in this bill. By creating project opportunities, the GAOA could help the existing network of corps provide meaningful job training and career pathways to more people, and put boots on the ground to help people recreate safely.

As national parks across the country look to reopen, it’s important that public lands and waters have the funding to support an anticipated surge in visitation. Americans are eager to get outdoors. LWCF projects will help create additional access points for biking, hiking, camping, boating or fishing. Infrastructure improvements — like better roads, updated facilities, and modern docks and campgrounds — are stalled with park employees at home, but a cash injection to these mostly rural maintenance projects will benefit every type of outdoor recreation activity and make experiences on federal lands more enjoyable and safer in a social-distancing era.

The GAOA would be one of the biggest catalysts for change the American outdoors has seen in half a century, reinvigorating the $778 billion outdoor economy, which, like the rest of our country, has been impacted significantly by the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond an economic boost, this legislation would help Americans get outside to experience benefits to their mental and physical health. Studies show time spent outside in nature can significantly decrease mental and physical stress.

For the foreseeable future, relief and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be the main priority in Congress. As our elected officials consider stimulus packages that can help important sectors of the economy recover, we urge more members from both parties to pledge their support to this groundbreaking outdoor recreation and conservation package. We also thank Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., among others, for their leadership on the GAOA and hope it moves forward as soon as possible to support jobs, rural communities, and the nation’s economy while providing safe outdoor recreation at a time when it is needed most.

Mary Ellen Sprenkel is President and CEO of The Corps Network

Mary Ellen Sprenkel is president and CEO of The Corps Network, the national association of service and conservation corps, which works to provide opportunities for young adults and veterans to serve our country through projects on public lands and in rural and urban communities.

Craig Kirby is president at the RV Industry Association

Craig Kirby is president at the RV Industry Association, a national trade group representing the $114 billion RV industry and companies that manufacture 98 percent of all RVs produced in North America.