The Great American Outdoors Act, which is estimated to bring millions to Tennessee in tourism means “there’s finally money to fix those crummy roads to your favorite public parks,” said one avid outdoorsman.
Caleb Hemmer advocated for the bill, which passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support July 22. In April, he organized a wild turkey hunting trip in Cherokee National Forest, which straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, but was told by park staff not to come because of terrible road conditions. Hemmer says the isolation necessitated by COVID-19 precautions means people need the outdoors more than ever.
“One of the few things you can do during COVID quarantine is be out in the woods,” he said of his disappointment in having to cancel.
Sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander, the bill was signed into law on August 4 by President Donald Trump. Several of its major components include fully and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a program created in 1964 that plays a large role in conservation of the outdoors and wildlife. Funds will also go to fixing up national parks and funding outdoor recreation service for local communities.
The bill has been hailed as one of the largest to help the National Park System in 50 years, according to Alexander and includes the Restore Our Parks Act that was first introduced by Alexander in 2018. Park maintenance backlogs are expected to be cut in half for Tennessee’s 12 national parks, which receive 9.2 million visitors a year.
On a national level, 419 national parks will receive funding along with four other federal land management agencies: The U.S. Forest Service; The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; The Bureau of Land Management; The Bureau of Indian Education.
“As the first major investment in our National Parks in a generation, the funding is critically important to addressing a maintenance backlog of over $11 billion across all National Parks,” said Tricia Mims, executive director for the National Park Partners. “Parks are heavily visited and well loved by millions of Americans, but the wear and tear takes a toll. The safety and enjoyment of the visitors is crucial and this legislation will pay dividends well into the future, as National Parks are major assets to their surrounding communities and to the American people.”
Funding for the Great American Outdoors Act comes not from taxpayer money but through royalties from energy development, such as off-shore drilling on federal lands and waters.
“While I don’t speak for all conservationists, I think it’s sound government policy to reinvest the funds back into the very public lands from which they are originally earned. Mark Twain said it best, ‘Buy land, they aren’t making it anymore!’” said Hemmer.
Parks visitors spend $717 million in Tennessee, most at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to Justin Groenert, vice president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. Most $200 million Tennessee receives through the Great American Outdoors Act will go to repairs at the East Tennessee attraction.
“We need to maintain our parks to continue to attract these visitors and their dollars,” said Groenert.
Another of the state’s largest national parks, the Cherokee National Forest, will receive $27 million. Other national parks will benefit as well with repairs for boat docks, bathrooms, roads, and preservation. National battlefields, including Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Parks, have $14 million in deferred maintenance.
“Without the bill, preserving Tennessee’s heritage at these historic sites would have been impossible,” said Groenert.
“The National Park Service maintains more than 25 miles of paved roads within Chickamauga and Chattanooga parks. Resurfacing projects for this road network alone comprise the majority of the park’s $30 million dollars of backlogged maintenance needs, along with repairs to historic structures and other facilities. Repaving park roads will improve the experience of 1 million annual visitors who explore the landscapes of the 1863 Civil War battles and access more than 80 miles of hiking, bicycling, and equestrian trails,” said Park Superintendent Brad Bennet.
Another 40% will go to state programming. Local communities can apply for grants for outdoor recreation, such as trails, water access, putting lands in protection or buying land for public use. The grants come with the condition that half the project cost must be matched.
“We are very excited and thankful for Sen. Alexander’s and our Tennessee delegation’s work and support on this. It will mean a lot to Tennesseans for years to come,” said Candi Rawlin, spokesperson for Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association.
The only member of the Tennessee congressional delegation to vote against the bill was junior Sen. Senator Marsha Blackburn.