What the Great American Outdoors act can do

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Everybody loves the national parks — but Congress has been stingy with capital investment money for years. But it last week passed and President Trump signed a bill to change that. The Great American Outdoors act will devote nearly $3 billion a year from oil and gas leases to maintenance and restoration of national parks. With an assessment, the project director of restore America’s parks at the Pew Charitable Trusts Marcia Argust joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mrs. Argust, good to have you on.

Marcia Argust: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: Now Congress is not appropriating this money out of thin air like it has say for pandemic response. They’re really diverting funds coming in to the government from another source. Tell us how that’s happening.

Marcia Argust: Well, I wouldn’t say that they’re diverting funds from another source. The financing mechanism is receipts from royalties from energy development that occurs on federal lands and water. And that is a concept that has been in place for decades. The receipts that would be used for the backlog funding would not be coming from other uses. In other words, they are receipts that are not obligated for other purposes.

Tom Temin: So what in your opinion, you’ve been working this issue for a long time and the National Park Service has been beating this drum of the disrepair on the backlog — why now? Why the change of heart in Congress, do you think?

Marcia Argust: I think this issue has gotten worse, repairs have built up? I think that’s one reason. I think the public is become more aware of this issue, and I think there is significant support out there in the public, and I think Congress is aware of that support. There are hundreds of groups that have been calling on Congress to dedicate more resources to address the repairs in our national parks and other federal land agencies, and those groups are very diverse. We’re not just talking about conservation groups. We’re talking about infrastructure groups. We’re talking about tribes, veterans groups, the US Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, face groups. So the outcry has been very loud over a number of years, and that momentum has built, and Congress has responded,

Tom Temin: Review for us this bill, what’s specific in it?

Marcia Argust: So the legislation would do two things. It would direct up to $9 billion dollars in non-taxpayer funds to address priority repairs in our national parks and other federal lands agencies. And it would also fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund programs. The backlog component, that would be over a five year period. The support for the legislation has been overwhelming in Congress. legislation passed the Senate in June with three quarters of the Senate supporting this legislation, including Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Both of whom were co sponsors of the bill. And the legislation passed the House as well with overwhelming bipartisan support. Again, that boat had about three quarters of the House on board.

Tom Temin: Do we have any indication of where the National Park Service is going to go first?

Marcia Argust: So the Park Service does a good job of assessing its conditions and the status of its repair needs. So it’s difficult for me to say what it’ll take on first, but we will have a better sense in 90 days after enactment into law. They will have to put out a list to Congress that says here are the projects that we will begin implementing within the first fiscal year. I think that lifts will include some large infrastructure projects, but it will also likely include some smaller projects that are important to maintain the integrity of historic sites.

Tom Temin: And from the Pew standpoint, are there any in your mind that say, gosh,this we really got to get to?

Marcia Argust: We all have our favorites, I suppose. Some people won’t find sexy, right, it would be great to see the Park Service wrap up repair needs at the Grand Canyon on the Trans Canyon pipeline.

Tom Temin: Thank you. That’s my favorite. That’s my top of the list.

Marcia Argust: That’s over 50 years old at 16 miles long. It’s been out there for years needing funding. So to be able to wrap that up would be great and actually help save repair costs. But I’d also love to see the Park Service do some repair work at Ebenezer Church in Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Park. There’s a lot of repair needs there. That’s an incredible historic building there. So there’s big names, there are small needs. The Park Service, I think, will be doing a good job of prioritizing and getting that list to Congress.

Tom Temin: That’s a good point. If someone visits a site that may not be as gigantic or as highly visited as the Grand Canyon, it might be something like this Martin Luther King site that’s emotionally important to the country and to the people that visit. It gives a terrible impression, I guess, if you go to a place like that and it’s in disrepair.

Marcia Argust: Yeah. Our park system is supposed to be the envy of the world, right? So that’s one reason this legislation is so importan. But it’s also really important because an investment like this with non-taxpayer funds, it’s going to have a high rate of return for local economies who depend on park tourism. And it will not only sustain jobs that are already supported by our tourism, it will help create new jobs.

Tom Temin: Marcia Argust is project director of Restore America’s Parks at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Thanks so much for joining me.

Marcia Argust: Thank you.

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