The US Senate has passed a landmark bipartisan bill that will dedicate billions of dollars to the country’s national parks for making critical repairs and double spending on a popular conservation program.
Voting 73 to 25 in favour, the Senate passed legislation allocating $9.5 billion over five years to tackle a critical maintenance backlog and guaranteed $900 million to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The House is expected to approve the legislation.
A rare bipartisan success story, the legislation would be the most significant for conservation in nearly half a century.
The Great American Outdoors Act aims to repair the National Park Service’s ageing infrastructure in more than 400 locations across the country which includes California’s Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee and the Maritime Heritage Trail at Biscayne in the Florida Keys.
The parks system also includes iconic sites of American history including the Gettysburg battlefields and the Martin Luther King, Jr National Historical Park in Atlanta which encompasses Dr King’s birth home.
Lawmakers persuaded Donald Trump to support the bill even though he repeatedly tried to slash spending for the federal LWCF in his budget proposals. Mr Trump has tweeted in favour of the lands bill, saying it “will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”
New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, whose father helped enact the program in the 1960s while head of the Interior Department, described the measure as landmark legislation that will for the first time permanently fund the LWCF at $900 million per year. The fund is fuelled by revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing.
“America’s public lands are at the very core of who we are,” the New Mexico Democrat told the Associated Press. “Full and permanent funding for LWCF — one of the most successful conservation tools we have to protect and expand our public lands — is a historic game-changer for New Mexico and the nation.”
Republican Senator Cory Gardner, of Colorado, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said the bill will create at least 100,000 jobs, while restoring national parks and repairing trails and forest systems.
Those measures are especially needed now, when communities surrounded by public lands have high unemployment rates because of shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Gardner said.
“This is an economic and jobs package as much as it is a conservation package,” he said, adding that Americans who have been shut in by the pandemic “are ready to get into the great outdoors.’’
Conservationists, who have fought for years for the funding, applauded the new bill.
Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association, said: “Chronic underfunding, cuts in staffing, record visitation, and billions of dollars in repairs have burdened our national parks for years. Park roads and bridges are collapsing, water systems are failing, and visitor centers are crumbling. This momentous bill not only provides an opportunity to better care for these treasured places, it will help to increase access to public lands across the country, provide jobs and bring much-needed relief to local communities suffering through hard times.
“The overwhelming bipartisan support for this bill demonstrates the value and power our national parks have to bring people together. Today, Senators from across the country and across the aisle stood together in support of our parks, public lands and communities. But there is more work to be done to get this bill over the finish line. Congress must protect America’s legacy and help this bill become law.”
“The Senate’s bipartisan vote to pass the Great American Outdoors Act is a sign of the unquestionable benefit it will have for people and nature,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president for conservation policy at the National Audubon Society.
“There is no more important time than now to make sure this bill becomes law to help protect birds, improve parks, and create jobs in every state across the country.”Source: Independent