Why Congress shouldn’t pass the Great American Outdoors Act

Originally published in The Daily Sentinel

If we learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is to become financially prepared for the unexpected — and to wash your hands often. As we care for both our personal and financial hygiene, we should expect the same from our elected officials as they set national budgets. Unfortunately, the American people are about to be disappointed as the Senate gears up to change the way the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is funded and abdicate its responsibility to oversee the way hundreds of millions of dollars are spent.

The Senate is expected soon to vote on the Great American Outdoors (GAO) Act. The bill does a few things, including making $900 million each year — into perpetuity — for LWCF mandatory spending, rather than discretionary. In other words, Congress no longer would consider LWCF priorities and spending levels through the annual appropriations process, and instead give federal agencies an annual $900 million check with no strings attached. If enacted, federal agencies have hundreds of millions of dollars available to purchase vast swaths of land, and no one to tell them “no.”

On the surface, LWCF supports a worthy cause. Fifty years ago, the program began as a long-term safeguard for American recreational opportunities by conserving natural resources. Congress split funding two ways: state-side funding, used for community projects like construction of baseball fields and rodeo grounds, and federal funding, used to purchase tracts of federal land for “conservation.” However, it became a land grab tool that falls short in meeting its own objective.

When Congress permanently extended the LWCF in 2019, it required Congress to annually appropriate funding, ensuring that individual members of Congress remained engaged in the decisions. The GAO Act strays from the intention of lawmakers. The mandatory funding allocates 40 percent, roughly $360 million per year, of the total program budget be used to purchase new lands and waters.

To put this in perspective, pastureland in the Mountain West averaged $634/acre in 2018. Using this estimate, $360 million could be used to purchase roughly 567,000 acres of land, equating to a land grab bigger than all of Colorado’s national parks combined.

Consequently, these land grabs result in poorly managed federal land and water. Increased land acquisition — and the costs that come with the regulatory requirements and general upkeep — result in federal agencies falling behind in necessary maintenance of federal lands. At the end of 2018, land management agencies had nearly $20 billion in deferred maintenance, and that figure only grows as you add more assets to the list.

The sponsors of the GAO Act are well aware that federal agencies are not equipped to take on more assets. Each year agencies seek more appropriations to care for the lands and resources they already own. While the GAO Act provides some dollars to pare down this multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, the LWCF funding to purchase new land removes any oversight to prevent the same financial situation from recurring.

Coloradans should be outraged. Handing federal agencies hundreds of millions of dollars without any checks and balances will only end in heartache — both for the public land user, and for the American taxpayer when the mounting disrepair of our public lands can no longer be ignored.

Do not misread my concern. I believe Congress’s heart is in the right place. I just do not believe purchasing tracts of land without the means to care for it achieves desired conservation outcomes. I welcome a conversation about how to best conserve and enhance the natural resources we have, but throwing good money after bad is not the solution. We have an opportunity to change the trajectory of natural resource conservation in this country. Rather than voting on the GAO Act in the coming days, Congress should respect the American people and actively safeguard our lands, water, and our domestic finances.

Mark Roeber is a rancher from Delta County, Colorado. He currently serves as the secretary of the Public Lands Council.