Congress approves Great American Outdoors Act

Cades Cove is a popular destination for photographers in the nation’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to boost investment in and protection of American parks and public lands. Coming a month after the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act by a large, bipartisan margin, the House action sends the bill to President Donald Trump, who has voiced support for the legislation, for his signature.

The bill will make permanent $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and direct up to $9.5 billion over five years to the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund to help address huge backlogs in maintenance needs.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, has a backlog of $236 million worth of work to repair roads and fix trail systems. The park, which straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border, is the most visited park in the nation, attracting more than 11 million visitors a year.

“Our national parks and public lands are incredible shared resources,” said SELC Federal Legislative Director Anders Reynolds. “They provide outstanding recreational opportunities for tens of millions of outdoor enthusiasts, helping support the economies of countless local communities, while also preserving sensitive ecosystems and habitat from over-development. It’s past time we devoted the appropriate resources to their upkeep.”

Roads are the main maintenance need for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The nearly 400 miles of paved and unpaved roads in the park need about $175 million worth of work to repair years of overuse and neglect, according to a case study by Pew Trusts. Park buildings also need repair and upgrade, as does the network of more than 800 miles of trails.

“The Great American Outdoors Act is a huge step in the right direction,” Reynolds said. “But with a $20 billion maintenance backlog for our national parks, it is only a first step. Properly maintaining our parks and preserving public lands is vital both for our environment and for the economic health of local communities that depend on outdoor tourism.”

Outdoor recreation in the Southeastern United States supports 1.1 million direct jobs that bring $37.9 billion in wages to the region, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. National forests also provide clean drinking water sources to millions.

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