A once-in-a-generation event just made history. Following a resounding chorus of ayes on Wednesday, July 22, America’s great outdoors were handed a major legislative win for generations to come. In a moment of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 310 to 107 in support of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), a bill that will both repair and conserve iconic public lands in West Virginia and throughout the country.
GAOA establishes a fund to support maintenance projects on federal public lands and ensures permanent, dedicated funding of the beloved Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The bill, sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) also received overwhelming support in the Senate on July 17 with a vote of 73 to 25. U.S. House Rep. Miller (R-WV) of West Virginia’s third district that includes the iconic New and Gauley rivers joined Sen. Manchin in supporting the bill. U.S. House Reps. David McKinley (R-WV) and Alex Mooney (R-WV), representing the two northern districts of the state, voted in opposition.
Sen. Manchin, a leader of the effort, sang the bill’s praises. “This bill is truly a historic conservation victory and will ensure that America’s treasured public lands are preserved for generations to come,” Manchin said. “This package provides full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has helped almost every county in West Virginia, and will significantly reduce the approximately $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog on our country’s public lands, including $60 million in deferred maintenance in West Virginia. I’m proud of this bipartisan piece of legislation and look forward to the President signing it into law.”
The GAOA provides up to $1.9 billion of annual funding for overdue repair and maintenance projects on public lands using revenue from energy produced on federal lands and offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf (OCS) over five years. The act also uses OCS revenue to dedicate full and permanent funding of $900 million annually to LWCF, established in 1964 and permanently reauthorized in February 2019.
The LWCF has been pivotal in the purchase and protection of West Virginia’s spectacular public lands and scenic rivers, including Seneca Rocks, Harpers Ferry, and the New River Gorge. To date, West Virginia has received $241 million from the LWCF, which has been distributed in more than 500 projects in 54 of 55 counties. These projects span everything from state park campgrounds and boulder parks to neighborhood playgrounds, swimming pools, and handicap access. Funding from the LWCF has also improved fishing and hunting access in 10 state Wildlife Management Areas.
LWCF allows federal land management agencies to purchase parcels from willing landowners within the boundaries of protected areas when they wish to put them up for sale. Numerous land purchases were made possible with funding from the LWCF, including the Gauley River National Recreation Area, Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and the entirety of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The purchase of mineral rights under the Cranberry Wilderness as a way to conserve surface land was also completed through the LWCF.
The LWCF has played a key role in ensuring West Virginia’s public lands and recreation resources will be accessible to current and future generations. The permanent reauthorization of the LWCF and passage of GAOA will also help immediately address the ever-growing backlog of much-needed maintenance work across America’s outdoor recreation facilities. Next, the bill heads to the desk of the president, who has expressed his support for the bill. Stay tuned to Highland Outdoors for more developments on this landmark legislation.
John Garder is full-bore into the process of becoming a full-time WV resident and works for the National Parks Conservation Association. He contributed to this reporting along with two HO staffers. All three will celebrate the bill’s passing this evening!