The House in a vote of 310-107 and the Senate in a vote of 73-25 passed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) in July and President Trump signed it in to law in August. The bill is one of the two most important conservation measures to pass Congress in years.
The legislation has two main impacts. First, it establishes a National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund that will provide up to $9 billion over the next five years to fix roads, trails, campgrounds and address other “deferred maintenance” projects at national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and other federal lands. Second, the GAOA guarantees $900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a flagship conservation program paid for by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. While some are critical that the LWCF is derived from the sale of fossil fuels, others argue that so long as drilling occurs, it is only right to invest at least some of the proceeds from that activity back into public lands and waters.
The LWCF was established in 1964 with an authorization level of $900 million per year, but in most years Congress has appropriated less than half of this amount. The LWCF is especially important because it helps fund the four main federal land management agencies (National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management) and provides grants to state and local governments to acquire land for recreation and conservation.
This funding is critically important given that our public lands have been badly under-resourced by Congress for many years.
The GAOA also cleared the way for two important land conservation efforts in California that CalWild has been working to advance. Specifically, the bill facilitated efforts to acquire the 12,000-acre Sanhedrin Ranch in Mendocino County in the Mendocino National Forest (MNF). The Sanhedrin Ranch is the largest remaining piece of private land inside the MNF. It contains wildlife and plant habitat of superlative quality as well as extremely important recreational values. The Sanhedrin Ranch is adjacent to the Yuki Wilderness and Sanhedrin Wilderness.
Trust for Public Land (TPL) acquired 3,000 acres of the Sanhedrin Ranch in 2018 using the LWCF, which was then donated to the MNF. Using a provision of the Wilderness Act of 1964 that permits donations to be added to wilderness areas without an act of Congress, the 3,000 acres were added to the Yuki Wilderness in 2018. The GAOA paved the way for the purchase of the second phase of the Sanhedrin Ranch acquisition: 7,000 additional acres will now be added to the MNF. TPL, CalWild, and other groups will continue to work to acquire the remainder of the Sanhedrin Ranch, most likely using LWCF dollars funded by the GAOA.
The other conservation effort aided by the passage of the GAOA was TPL’s effort to acquire land in the Trinity Divide region of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest (STNF). The Trinity Divide is the ridge dividing the Trinity River, Scott River, and Sacramento River watersheds. It is also the divide between Shasta, Siskiyou, and Trinity counties. The world-famous Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) follows the Trinity Divide. Its most well-known destinations are Castle Crags Wilderness, Mount Eddy-Deadfall Lakes, Kangaroo Lake, and the northeastern portion of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. This stunning and diverse landscape with world class vistas had the misfortune of being covered by Nineteenth Century laws that gave the railroads every other square mile of government land for free.
Today, this former railroad land (which has no railroad) is owned by logging companies. TPL has been slowly working to acquire these lands from the logging companies and the GAOA has helped this effort. As with Sanhedrin, it will take many years for TPL to acquire the over 7,000 acres of former private lands that may eventually be added to the STNF along the Trinity Divide. As with Sanhedrin, some of this land may be added to existing wilderness areas, in this case the Trinity Alps Wilderness and Castle Crags Wilderness.
While the passage of the GAOA does not solve the fiscal woes of our public land management agencies, it goes a long way towards addressing them. CalWild and our allies will continue to fight to ensure that our public lands receive the adequate, sustainable, and predictable funding levels that they deserve.