On the Hill: Historic Parks and Public Lands Bill Emerges in the Senate

By Special Contributor posted 03-11-2020 13:03


By: Pam Bowman,  Janelle DiLuccia, and Christine Grubbs

 Editor's Note (Update 6/8/20): 

After changes to the congressional calendar due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate delayed consideration of the Great American Outdoors Act until the week of June 8.  The preservation community and our partners continued our advocacy asking Senators to support the legislation and vote YES on a clean bill with no amendments to get this historic legislation over the finish line.  In the House, identical companion legislation (H.R. 7092) was introduced by Representative Joe Cunningham (D-SC) on June 4 with the bipartisan support of 11 other Representatives.  (More information after the passage in the Senate)

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Great American Outdoors Act on Friday, March 13. ACHP Chairman Aimee Jorjani said, “The ACHP applauds the support of President Trump for both of these important initiatives that will aid in the preservation of historic properties. The ACHP previously has supported both the full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and funding to address the maintenance of historic properties in National Parks.

After years of sustained advocacy by the preservation community and partner organizations throughout the nation, the Senate is poised to act on historic legislation that would tackle the deferred maintenance backlog of the National Park Service (NPS) and other federal agencies, as well as fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If enacted, this legislation would be the single largest federal investment in preservation of historic and cultural resources for public lands in our generation.

Credit: Architect of the Capitol 

The Great American Outdoors Act

The Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422) introduced by Senators Gardner (R-CO), Manchin (D-WV), Daines (R-MT), and Warner (D-VA) includes language from two previously introduced bills: The Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500), which addresses NPS deferred maintenance, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act (S. 1081). Following a tweet from President Trump calling on Congress to pass legislation addressing these important public lands issues, a bipartisan group of senators collaborated to quickly produce the new legislation, which may be voted on by the full Senate this month. The preservation community will be engaging senators and asking that they support the legislation.

Deferred Maintenance

The Great American Outdoors Act would provide up to $9.5 billion in dedicated funding over five years ($1.9 billion per year) for much needed repairs of the National Park Service and other federal agencies. The bill borrows language from the House deferred maintenance bill (H.R. 1225) to address deferred maintenance at multiple federal agencies, with the funds distributed as follows: National Park Service (70% at $1.3 billion per year), the Forest Service (10%), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (10%), the Bureau of Land Management (5%), and the Bureau of Indian Education (5%).

The legislation allocates the funding to a new “National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund” for deferred maintenance projects. Funding comes from receipts from onshore and offshore energy development, as well as renewables, that are not otherwise allocated to other purposes and is structured in such a way that allocations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Historic Preservation Fund are not impacted. The National Trust also advocated strongly for a provision that is retained in this bill requiring that no less than 65 percent of the dedicated funding be allocated to non-transportation projects. Given the often high cost of transportation repairs and the limited funding available, this language ensures funding is available to be directed towards projects at historic buildings and sites.

The NPS deferred maintenance backlog, in particular, has received nationwide attention in recent years as it steadily increased to nearly $12 billion. Of this backlog, 47 percent is for historic assets, which puts historic buildings and other infrastructure at risk of permanent damage or loss. In the absence of robust funding, the condition of these assets will continue to deteriorate and become more expensive to repair and preserve in the future. Some of the National Park Service’s most significant historic sites are at risk of falling into disrepair. For example, the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor, which includes Ellis Island—an iconic symbol of American freedom and immigration—has repair needs of over $160 million. The Great American Outdoors Act would cut the NPS deferred maintenance backlog by more than half and ensure the preservation of some of our nation’s most iconic historic places.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Great American Outdoors Act would also provide full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Since 1965, the LWCF has played a pivotal role in preserving historic places as the principal funding source for adding to our national parks and other public lands. Through the American Battlefield Protection Program, LWCF also helps states, local governments, and their partners preserve historic battlefields.

LWCF ensures that all Americans can learn from, experience, and enjoy sites that tell diverse stories. Since its creation, LWCF has invested about $19 billion in conserving outdoor spaces for the American people to experience and enjoy. Along with its well-documented success in providing opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreational activities, LWCF plays a pivotal role preserving our nation’s historic places. LWCF has invested more than $570 million to add specifically to our nation’s historic and cultural parks managed by the National Park Service, and many millions more to add other public lands that tell diverse stories of our nation’s history.

Many of our nation’s most significant historic and cultural landscapes have been protected with investments from LWCF. Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia, Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Kansas, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado have all benefited significantly from LWCF. In Ohio, thanks largely to LWCF, lands once slated for development and were instead conserved as part of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, which is among our nation’s newest proposed World Heritage Sites. At Chancellorsville Battlefield in Virginia—which the National Trust named as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1998—LWCF was essential for preservationists, the National Park Service, local leaders, and developers found solutions to successfully protect key portions of the Chancellorsville Battlefield while enhancing economic growth. These success stories exist in every state in the nation.

LWCF is an extremely popular and effective program for conserving our nation’s land, water, historic, and recreation heritage. Its funding comes primarily from offshore oil and gas revenues—not taxpayer dollars. Despite its success, less than half of the funding set aside for LWCF has been used for its intended purposes since the program was created in 1965. The Great American Outdoors Act would fix the shortfall going forward by guaranteeing full funding of $900 million annually for this crucial program.

Take Action

In collaboration with our local, state, and national partners, preservationists have successfully made the case that establishing a dedicated fund for NPS deferred maintenance needs and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund will provide the support necessary to ensure America’s historic places are preserved for generations to come.

Our collective advocacy produced:

  • 22 case studies highlighting issues such as the contributions of HOPE Crew and historic leasing to reducing the deferred maintenance backlog;
  • 3 community events in Virginia, Ohio, and Louisiana highlighting the importance of LWCF;
  • 363 signatures on letters to House and Senate committees by preservation organizations, battlefield preservation organizations, and Main Streets, in support of a deferred maintenance bill;
  • Submissions of testimony to a dozen congressional hearings and markup sessions;
  • 30 op-eds and letters to the editor and over 10 radio interviews in supporting deferred maintenance legislation; and
  • 5 lobby days with 47 advocates from 16 states traveling to Washington DC for Hill meetings that highlighted repair needs at NPS sites in their communities.
We expect the Senate to act quickly to advance the Great American Outdoors Act, and your advocacy will help get this bill across the finish line! Preservationists can contact their senators or share this summary with Hill staff and ask that they cosponsor the bill and vote YES when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Pam Bowman is the director of Public Lands policy, Janelle DiLuccia is the associate director of Public Lands policy, and Christine Grubbs is the associate manager of Government Relations at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.