Congress has passed legislation providing as much as $9.5 billion over the next five years—and a dedicated revenue stream—to chip away at the persistently large infrastructure maintenance backlog in U.S. national parks and other federal lands 

The bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, won final congressional approval on July 22, when the House passed it on a bipartisan 310-107 vote. The Senate cleared the measure in June.

It now goes to the White House for President Trump's expected signature.

[View text of bill here.]

Jimmy Christianson, Associated General Contractors of America’s vice president for government relations, says the bill is “long overdue.”

At $9.5 billion, he says "it's a big deal for construction contractors throughout the country" because of the number of parks and lands in the federal system.

He notes the new funding will be particularly important to western construction companies because of sizable acreage in the West managed by the U.S. government.

New Revenue Stream

The legislation sets up a new dedicated National Parks and Federal Land Legacy Restoration Fund. It will be supported by royalty revenue the federal government receives from oil, gas, coal and renewable-energy production on federal lands, both on and offshore.

The bill directs 70% of the total, or as much as $1.3 billion annually, to the National Park Service. In 2018, the agency estimated its infrastructure maintenance backlog at $11.9 billion.

The U.S. Forest Service will get 15% of the funding and the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education each will get 5%.

The Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Indian Education are parts of the Interior Dept. The Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Dept.

The legislation also specifies that at least 65% of the overall total should go for non-transportation projects, such as buildings and water and wastewater systems. The remaining 35% will go for roads, bridges, parking lots and other transportation projects.

Lawmakers say the new fund should cut the Park Service’s infrastructure backlog by half or more. The agency says that although it has continued to complete maintenance projects, other ones are being added to the list. The backlog has hovered at the $11-billion to $12-billion level for the past several years.

Of the currently estimated $11.9-billion total, the Park Service says its transportation maintenance backlog is about $6.2 billion and its non-transportation backlog is about $5.8 billion.

"The hope is that the Dept. of Interior and its agencies can move forward quickly with planning, developing and awarding contracts for this work at a time of great uncertainty, given the ongoing pandemic," Christianson says.

Conservation Fund Provisions

In addition to the parks and federal lands infrastructure provisions, the new legislation also permanently and fully funds the existing Land and Water Conservation Fund, at $900 million a year.

That fund was established in 1964 and also is supported by oil and gas royalties. But Congress has rarely allowed all of its annual income to be spent.

A principal use of the conservation fund's money is for acquiring lands for conservation, either by the federal government or by the states, through matching grants.

To ensure that the fund’s resources will be spent, the new bill has language stating that the revenue isn’t subject to annual appropriations.

Theresa Pierno, National Parks Conservation Association president and CEO, said in a statement, “You cannot overstate the importance of this bill and what it will mean for national parks, public lands and communities across the country.” She added, “This bill is a conservationist’s dream.”