Kelly S. Bricker: The Great American Outdoors Act offers weary Americans a lifeline

It’s time to envision a future with more protected areas and urban parks.

(Danny Chan La | The Salt Lake Tribune) This undated file photo shows Hickman Arch at Capitol Reef near Torrey, Utah.

During the long last 11 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the great outdoors has offered weary Americans a lifeline. Research shows that a walk in the park, a hike in the woods or a swim in the ocean is critical for mental and physical well-being. In a time of decreased social interactions and diminished community, outdoor spaces have served as the glue holding people together. Where else in 2020 was it safe to enjoy the company of others?

That’s what makes the Great American Outdoors Act so important. The bill passed by overwhelmingly bipartisan majorities in the United States Senate and House of Representatives last summer before being signed into law Aug. 4. The GAOA allocates $9.5 billion over five years to address a backlog of much-needed maintenance in U.S. national parks. More than $6 billion of that money — held by the National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund — is earmarked specifically for the country’s 419 national park units, which see more than 325 million visitors each year.

The GAOA also guarantees $900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a conservation program originally funded by royalty payments from offshore drilling in federally protected waters. The LWCF provides grants to state and local governments to acquire land for recreation and conservation while funding the nation’s four primary federal land programs: national parks, national forests, fish and wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management.

In other words, the GAOA is a very big deal. The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading advocacy organization for the parks, calls it “a conservationist’s dream.” The act’s critical funding will help our national parks better manage recent growth in visitation through improved infrastructure, more green space, and increased equity. We need to make outdoor amenities available to everyone—not just for a privileged few, but for all Americans. Access to parks and recreation should be a part of every neighborhood. GAOA funding helps with that.

Here in Utah, we’ll see more support for outdoor infrastructure because of the state grants program included in the LWCF. This allows the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation and the governor’s office to strategically plan for the long-term management of parks across the state. This helps us envision a future different than the one that’s been dominated by development and resource extraction.

The GAOA will help Utah’s Big Five national parks — Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion — deal with the surges in crowds that began several years ago and reached a fever pitch in 2020. But it will also help other national forests and monuments plan for a more sustainable future and make funding available to the local parks and recreation agencies in Utah that support community-based parks and recreation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for healthy ecosystems that support well-being for people. If we don’t take care of the biological diversity of our planet, humans suffer, both globally and locally.

Visitor spending in and around national parks contributed more than $40 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019 and supported nearly 330,000 jobs. Many of those jobs have been affected, however, by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, increased use of the outdoors has exacted an enormous toll on areas across the country — and particularly in the Mountain West.

With remote work a foundation of our “new normal,” we’ve seen increased impacts on gateway communities near national parks and other recreation areas. “Pandemic refugees” have bolstered populations in nature-adjacent locations as disparate as St. George, Utah; Greater Yellowstone, Montana; Hudson Valley, New York; and small-town Vermont.

Access to outdoor spaces drives “amenity migration,” where people move to places that offer a better quality of life. This validates the necessity of financial support provided by the GAOA to shore up infrastructure in places that have seen an influx of visitors and new residents.

While this may be the case in parts of the USA, many other communities that rely on nature-based tourism have also been hard hit by the economic impacts of the pandemic. That makes the financial support provided by the GAOA so important. Knowing that a source of long-term investment exists allows decision-makers in these areas to explore new ideas around regenerative tourism.

For instance, how do we rethink the problems associated with seasonal overuse and decline? In the midst of a crisis, how do we support special places so they’re not entirely reliant on tourism dollars? Might we envision a national trust system that helps communities mitigate economic losses and survive to see another season?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us to reimagine our relationships with each other and with nature. Thanks to the passage of the GAOA — and the inauguration of a new presidential administration committed to a more robust environmental policy — we have the opportunity to tackle big issues.

It’s time to envision a future with more protected areas and urban parks. It’s time to rethink the value of these areas so we can manage them better. It’s time to invest in and expand outdoor recreation opportunities for all people and their communities so everyone can enjoy their associated benefits. With long-term funding in place and more advocates than ever fighting for the environment — and for parks — this is the biggest moment in generations to support our great American identity of outdoor access for all.

Kelly S. Bricker, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Parks, Recreation, & Tourism at University of Utah College of Health