America unequivocally loves its national parks and public lands. For decades, each president and members of Congress talked about how much they care about these lands, but have not been willing to do much more than talk. Their failure to act resulted in neglect and wear and tear on our National Park roads, water systems, lodging and facilities.
Billions of dollars are needed to restore our national parks as more than 5,500 miles of paved roads, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings need upgrades and improvements. In Colorado, $238 million is needed to tackle deferred maintenance. Just as they failed to fund our national parks, in the over half century since making a commitment to fund conservation projects through the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1964, Congress has seldom provided full funding.
In March, President Donald Trump called on Congress to stop kicking the can down the road, fix the aging infrastructure at our national parks and permanently fund conservation projects through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Colorado’s own Sen. Cory Gardner introduced the Great American Outdoors Act, which was supported by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in Congress. The House of Representatives passed this Senate bill without a single amendment. When President Trump signs this legislation into law, it will be the most significant conservation law in decades.
The law will use royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to provide up to $1.9 billion a year for five years to repair critical facilities and infrastructure in our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and American Indian schools. It will also permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million a year to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the country.
In a time when political divides have seemingly widened, conservation and outdoor recreation have brought both parties together in support of the more than 486 million visitors the Department of the Interior welcomes to our public lands each year. The importance of finding solace in the outdoors and having space to recreate and social distance has never been more critical to the mental health and well-being of our country. There is also no better place to do so than at any of our 419 national parks, 568 wildlife refuges, and numerous other public sites across the 500 million acres of public lands we are entrusted to manage.
As we work to strategically invest in what we have, we must also expand outdoor recreation opportunities for the American people. Permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund will enable us to leverage public and private dollars to help state and local governments create and improve parks, trails and other recreation areas in their communities for public enjoyment and outdoor recreation. This will allow us to find additional, practical ways to systematically improve access to our public lands and expand recreation opportunities.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund also has great potential to support the government and other partners’ efforts to improve habitat quality for wildlife — specifically, winter range and migration corridors for Western big-game species that migrate across thousands of miles of federal, state, tribal and private lands during their annual journeys. The department has funded numerous research projects chosen by recipient state wildlife agencies to help identify priority corridors or winter range areas, or to identify movement corridors that cross or are impeded by highways.
Funding to address habitat conservation actions within state-identified priority areas will help ensure robust herds of big-game species exist for Americans to enjoy. In fact, Colorado has specifically acknowledged that conservation easements are needed to protect habitat within five priority migration corridors or winter range areas. Permanent funding provided through the Land and Water Conservation Fund will provide much needed resources to enter into voluntary transactions in these priority areas.
The most significant legislative accomplishment for conservation stewardship in generations is on the brink of becoming law. Without the leadership of President Trump, Sen. Gardner and a few other legislators, the effort would have never happened.
David Bernhardt serves as the 53rd U.S. secretary of the Interior.