By Josephine O’Grady

The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) of 2020 promised the investment in national parks that the United States desperately needed. Since 1980, the number of visitors to national parks has increased by 50%, yet land management agencies previously did not receive increased funding to support this influx of visitors. The law has two main outputs: permanent funding for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the creation of the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Program. The LWCF provides matching grants for state open space land acquisition projects, while the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Program authorizes funding to several land management agencies to address maintenance backlog projects on federal recreation lands. However, it is in this second output that the GAOA has not implemented actionable steps to maintain national parks for future generations.

The National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Program funds five land management agencies reporting to the Department of the Interior (Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, and Bureau of Indian Education), all of whom maintain federally owned public lands for a combination of environmental restoration, open space, and outdoor recreation purposes.  The purpose of the funding of $1.9 billion annually between fiscal years 2021 and 2025 is to address maintenance backlog projects at each agency, which spans repairments to visitor infrastructure such as recreation trails, facilities, campgrounds, monuments, and other services at recreation sites.

This funding is essential for federal agencies to enhance existing recreation programs that increase equitable access to green space. For example, the National Parks Service funds the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program, which funds outdoor recreation projects in “park deserts” or disadvantaged urban communities lacking recreation space within walking distance. Through the NJDEP Green Acres Program, New Jersey has used these funding opportunities to advance the policy priorities outlined in its State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which aims to increase close-to-home recreation opportunities to enhance the quality of life for residents statewide.

Despite the historic investment provided by the GAOA, the act lacks a clear-cut spending plan for the programs it is designed to support. In March 2022, the GAOA Coordination and Implementation Task Force conducted an evaluation to determine the status of the implementation steps outlined in the act. Through the evaluation, the task force determined that the Department of the Interior did not develop a formal strategy to maximize the impact of Legacy Restoration Funds (LRF). Although the Department has some aspects of project goals and responsibilities in various internal documents, these materials do not have stated performance measures, problem definition, risk assessment, and risk management.

Without a uniform approach to selecting maintenance projects, controversy over current projects continues as the critical backlog faced by national parks increases. In testimony to the 2022 National Parks Subcommittee Hearing on the GAO Act, the advocacy coalition Outdoors Alliance asserted that LRF money is used for projects that do not qualify for the program, such as vegetation treatment projects, bridge maintenance, utility replacements, and housing projects. This was further echoed in the 2023 Oversight Hearing on “Examining the Implementation of the GAO Act and the Growing National Park Service Deferred Maintenance Backlog.” In this hearing, several members from the Natural Resources Committee contested that Presidio National Park, which received LRF money to develop zero-climate impact features, was an appropriate use of LRF money, given that this is not an explicit deferred maintenance project and the GAO Act does not include any stated climate goals.

As a result of these implementation weaknesses, the Task Force provided two recommendations: (1) to develop a strategy that incorporates the Government Accountability Office’s six characteristics of effective strategy, and (2) to develop best management practices for deferred maintenance projects. In addition to these recommendations, it is also important for the land management agencies supported by LRF funds to partner with community-based organizations adjacent to national parks and federally owned recreation lands. By utilizing local partners, agencies will select maintenance projects for funding that meet the needs and interests of the communities that are most invested in the land. These recommendations are necessary to ensure that — in addition to acquiring new open space through the LWCF — the Department of the Interior is managing funds to preserve the national treasures we already have for years to come.

Josephine O’Grady is a teaching/research assistant with the NJSPL who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.