The recently passed Great American Outdoors Act has won high praise from across the political spectrum. The Wilderness Society called the measure an “incredible victory,” while Field & Stream magazine said it’s the largest public lands funding legislation “since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.”
The Outdoors Act permanently finances the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million per year, using revenues from offshore oil and natural gas production. It will also invest $9.5 billion over five years to carry out long overdue maintenance projects and upgrades on federal lands.
Those projects “will help improve access to public lands, including for hunting and fishing opportunities, which creates jobs and increases economic activity,” according to a bill summary from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican and lead sponsor of the Outdoors Act. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said the legislation was the culmination of years of work and now clears the way for “critical investments in our forests, parks and public lands.”
But what kind of investments? As it turns out, the backlog of deferred maintenance on federal lands is mostly transportation infrastructure: The roads, bridges, tunnels and parking lots that allow people to travel to and from our forests, parks and public lands safely and enjoyably.
The National Park Service, for example, has roughly $6.2 billion in backlogged transportation infrastructure projects, according to data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts. For its part, the U.S. Forest Service has roughly $3.7 billion of deferred transportation projects, according to the National Association of Forest Service Retirees.
Altogether, 58 percent of the NPS and USFS maintenance backlog falls into the transportation category. In Colorado, transportation represents an even bigger share.
Almost two-thirds of the deferred maintenance backlog on federal lands in Colorado is transportation-related, according to a recent report from the Colorado Infrastructure Committee, a coalition of civic leaders, nonprofit organizations and public officials convened by Colorado Concern, a leading state business group. I was one of several outside advisers to the committee, which described the infrastructure backlog on public lands as an “urgent problem for Colorado, which heavily depends on tourism and outdoor recreation to create jobs, support businesses and generate tax revenues.”
“Outdated or worn-out infrastructure limits access to public lands and diminishes the experience of visitors, artificially constraining the number of people who will visit nearby communities,” the committee’s report concluded. “In Colorado, public lands are not decorative or aesthetic—they are critical pieces of economic infrastructure and essential to our growth.”
Colorado is far from alone, of course, which explains why the Great American Outdoors Act passed the Senate in a 73 to 25 vote and cleared the House 310 to 107. After it was signed by President Donald Trump, environmental and business advocates were quick to highlight the economic benefits of infrastructure projects on public lands in the wake of COVID-19.
The Outdoors Act “is even more important during this pandemic, because starting the overdue repair work will help create jobs that communities and businesses need for their economic recovery,” the Pew Charitable Trusts, National Audubon Society and U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a joint statement.
According to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, this construction and maintenance work could create more than 108,000 jobs. So, yes, the Outdoors Act is about preserving and celebrating the natural environment. But it’s also about infrastructure and everything that goes into it: asphalt, concrete, steel, hard hats and paychecks.
This infrastructure story has been largely overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. Not just because of the billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs the Outdoors Act will create on its own, but also because it could serve as a model of bipartisan cooperation to address much bigger infrastructure challenges.
Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C. agree the nation has between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in unfunded infrastructure needs. The Business Roundtable, meanwhile, says every dollar of infrastructure investment generates more than three dollars in higher economic growth – because when it’s easier to move people, goods and information across the economy, businesses are more profitable and workers make more money.
Locally, the Colorado Infrastructure Committee identified more than $17 billion in needs across the state economy, from highways and bridges to school buildings and broadband. Likewise, the Common Sense Institute – where I’m a fellow – recently described the gap between Colorado’s transportation needs and funding sources as “a slow-motion train wreck.”
Solutions to these infrastructure challenges have been elusive. But if the left and the right can agree on the economic case for better roads and bridges in national parks, perhaps they can eventually agree on the economic case for better roads and bridges in cities, suburbs and rural America too.