Congress took historic action in the conservation of America’s natural landscapes by passing the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). The bill combines two conservation and park proposals that each have strong, bipartisan support — fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and making major investments to care for our national parks and other public lands. With the president’s signature on Aug. 4, this is the most significant parks and public lands funding enacted in 50 years!
The historic bill comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and at a moment of historic racial reconciliation. The killing of George Floyd and Christian Cooper’s disturbing racist encounter in Central Park remind us just how far we still must go toward “liberty and justice for all.” In Minnesota, where some of the nation’s worst racial disparities exist, a business-as-usual mindset will simply not cut it.
Funding should help remedy inequities
As leaders of conservation groups that have long worked in Minnesota, and whose organizations have advocated for or benefited from programs like LWCF, we recognize the need for this funding to be spent in a manner that remedies existing inequities, not exacerbates them. This moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage increased support for public lands to create greater equity in the outdoor world.
In the past, Minnesota has received millions in federal funds for remote areas, including Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and for areas closer to the Twin Cities such as the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge — one of the nation’s largest urban refuges. Minnesota has also received funds through the Forest Legacy program, which not only keeps forests intact, but also helps keep water clean in the Mississippi River headwaters area, which provides drinking water to more than 44 percent of Minnesotans, including residents in rural and suburban communities along with Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The GAOA amounts to a 240 percent increase in LWCF funding for the next 10 years, compared to the last 10 years. That means stable and predictable public funding to support additional strategic conservation projects — and, through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Program, a significant expansion in federal support to help ensure all Americans are within a 10-minute walk from a vibrant park or natural area.
Access is unequal
Whether in a small town or a big city, outdoor spaces are often at the center of vibrant communities. Over the last few months, many have found peace in the outdoors. Yet, access to quality outdoor space is not equitable. Past policies have increased disparities and limited access for many communities of color. We have an opportunity to change that. We will work together to ensure this LWCF funding goes first to Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color who have historically lacked easy access to the outdoors because of systemic racial injustices and chronic underinvestment. We must ensure this funding is used to write a new and truly equitable conservation future.
Investments focused on equitable access, combined with making major investments to take care of our existing national parks, trails and other public lands, are critical to reigniting local economies impacted by the pandemic, creating jobs and helping small businesses get back on their feet. The legislation will support and stimulate the outdoor recreation industry that generates more than 5.2 million American jobs and contributes $778 billion in national economic output each year.
With a long road ahead for our nation’s post-COVID recovery, the GAOA comes at a critically important time. We’re grateful to the bipartisan group of Minnesota members of Congress who voted in support of the Great American Outdoors Act: U.S. Reps. Angie Craig, Dean Phillips, Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar, Collin Peterson and Pete Stauber, as well as U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. We’ll be looking to these same leaders to help ensure vulnerable communities are prioritized as funding decisions are made. At the top of their lists should be Minnesota’s communities of color, who have been hardest hit by COVID-19 and the subsequent economic recession and who for too long have been excluded from outdoor spaces.
All told, the Great American Outdoors Act will improve access to the outdoors and nature. But leaders in Minnesota and beyond, including within the conservation community, must work to ensure the implementation of these improved public lands and parks correct past discriminatory policies and ensure previously ignored communities are put first.
Paul Austin is the executive director of Conservation Minnesota. Ann Mulholland is the director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Susan Schmidt is the Minnesota state director of the Trust for Public Land.
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