What the Great American Outdoors Act Means for New York
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
By: Eni Owoeye
Considered by some as one of the greatest victories for land conservation in the last 50 years, the Great American Outdoors Act passed with bipartisan support in the Senate.
The bill would spend about $900 million a year — double the current spending — on programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Another $1.9 billion per year will be allocated on the improvements of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands because let’s face it: these conservation projects are in need of support after years of inadequate funding. Establishing the National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund addresses the maintenance backlogs on our nation’s public lands.
So in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, why would the Senate decide to pass such a bill? Furthermore, where is all this money coming from?
Nationally, outdoor recreational tourism is an important industry, generating billions of dollars annually. In New York State alone, the sector produces $41.8 billion in consumer spending, $14.0 billion in wages and salaries, and so far has created and currently supports 313,000 jobs across the state. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado and one of the bill’s chief sponsors, believes this bill is economically restorative. Through this bill, expanding current funding will create at least 100,000 jobs, while also restoring national parks and repairing trails and forest systems. “This is an economic and jobs package as much as it is a conservation package,″ he said, adding that Americans who have been shut in by the pandemic “are ready to get into the great outdoors.”
While land conservation generally remains a widely shared American sentiment for preserving our nation’s history and natural beauty, there has been some opposition. Some opponents to the bill have argued that this funding will eat away at available resources for Americans taxpayers, among other things. It is important to note the conservation fund does not rely on taxpayer funds. Instead, the LWCF uses revenue collected from offshore oil and gas development to purchase lands from willing sellers for the purposes of conservation.
The LWCF has provided New York State with $355.9 million in total so far since its inception over 50 years ago. Along with the 35 parks managed by the National Parks Service, New York also has 10 wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Many projects will now receive the maintenance funding needed to make visiting these locations more enjoyable.
Yet, this is not just a win for the traditional forestscape, which we know is largely concentrated outside of New York City. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand have noted important cultural and historical properties like the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in Auburn, the Stonewall National Monument and the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan all will be eligible for funding. This highlights a very crucial element of how New York can ensure we are using these funds to cultivate a different kind of appreciation for the outdoors.
Equity has to be at the forefront of consideration if we want our conservation efforts to cater to all the rich and diverse communities that make New York, and America, what it is. The Great American Outdoors Act will not be “great” if it further excludes marginalized BIPOC and impoverished demographic groups. In 2019 alone, national parks recorded a whopping 327 million visitors, with the familiar Gateway National Recreation Area of New Jersey being the 4th most visited park in the nation. Behind these numbers, however, are tremendous disparities that exclude many people from accessing national parks. The reasons are both cultural and economic.
The national park system was built off of a problematic legacy. Many national parks are located in the traditional lands of Native American Nations and Tribes, and they were established by evicting indigenous communities. Some of New York’s most visited public spaces, like Central Park, can only exist today because of the erasure of the once thriving predominantly African-American town called Seneca Village.
The author of Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney, explains how the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the "great outdoors" and largely dictated the communities able to access natural spaces. Socioeconomic status also has a pernicious influence on how available these environments are when considering how limited public transportation systems notably pose challenges for city folks from less affluent backgrounds.
The health of the community corresponds to the pride they have in their environment. It doesn’t matter if your preferred escape is under a canopy of trees, by a pond with a fishing rod, or in front of a marked memorial. Getting outdoors allows us a closer relationship to our environment and our cultural heritage. Quarantine restrictions have highlighted the privilege in the ability to experience the outdoors.
While Congress has pledged to maintain and improve the state of our public parks, we as a society must collectively work to endorse accessibility and support efforts to serve environmental justice.
Eni Owoeye is based in Manhattan studying International Relations and Environmental Studies with particular focuses on environmental literacy, the carceral state, and international policy analysis.