The Great American Outdoors Act and What it Means for You

July 29, 2021
Landscape Architecture Parks & Open Space

Marking the first anniversary of the passage of this once-in-a-generation legislation by exploring its potential impact on our local, state and national public lands.

Nature, public parks, open green spaces, creeks and streams – they all have two things in common: they make us healthier and happier and most of them are examples of public land. In addition to the endorphins, public land offers identity and economic benefit to our communities, preserves the environment and provides a place for us to engage in civic activities.

In August 2021, we celebrated the first anniversary of the official passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). Referred to as the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation, over the next several years, the GAOA will inject billions of dollars into the maintenance and repair of U.S. national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian Schools. The legislation includes components from two previous bills, the Restore Our Parks Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, both of which focus on critical repair needs for and conservation of our country’s public lands.

As a design firm that focuses a great deal of time and attention on parks and recreation projects, RDG has a vested interest in what the GAOA means for our clients and partners. With this interest also comes a wealth of questions: What will the impact be on our national, state and local parks? How can we best leverage this funding to better serve our communities? When will potential funding opportunities be available in our community? Where do we start?

In short, what does the Great American Outdoors Act mean for you?

Before we dig into the answers to some of these questions, here’s a base definition of the spaces we’re talking about when we talk about public land.

What Defines “Public Land?”

Public lands are areas of land and water that today are owned collectively by United States citizens and managed by government agencies. Public lands are different from private lands, which are owned by an individual, a business or a non-governmental organization. Although public lands are now considered to be owned collectively by U.S. citizens, these lands include ancestral homelands, migration routes, ceremonial grounds and hunting and harvesting places for indigenous peoples who have been forcibly removed. We specify “United States citizens” in the definition of public lands because although undocumented people living in the U.S. and noncitizens have a connection to the land and use public lands, because of their citizenship status, they are not included in the formal decision-making process through their right to vote (certainly, noncitizen advocates in the public or academic sectors can be influential in the public lands conversation).

Most public lands are managed by the federal government, by a state or local government or by a sovereign tribal nation. Not all federally managed lands are public use; for example, access is tightly restricted on military bases. Across the country, however, there are more than 640 million acres of parks, forests, preserves and historic sites that are open to the public.

Across the country, there are more than 640 million acres of parks, forests, preserves and historic sites that are open to the public. Pracht Wetland Park in Wichita, Kansas by RDG. Photos by IRIS22 Productions.

Public land is good for more than just a perfect Instagram photo or a chance to get away. In fact, each year outdoor recreation generates $887 billion in consumer spending. In addition to providing 7.6 million jobs in the outdoor recreation field, these lands help local economies thrive by supporting hospitality and retail businesses. What’s more, public lands are sources of clean air and water. Here in Des Moines, Iowa for example, the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers provide drinking water to over 500,000 residents. When we think about public land in this way, we understand how critical it is to maintain the facilities and infrastructure that support these areas.  

The Great American Outdoors Act Explained

Now that we’ve defined public lands, let’s look more closely at the details of GAOA and how the act might impact our local, state and national spaces.

On July 22, 2020, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation that dedicates $1.3 billion per year for five years to deferred maintenance projects in the National Park Service’s nearly $12 billion backlog of needed repair work. Former President Trump signed the bill into law on August 4, 2020. The National Parks Conservation Association along with thousands of advocates worked for 20 years to secure this support, leading the way to this landmark victory. In passing the Great American Outdoors Act, Congress not only provided funding to repair aging infrastructure on our public lands, but it also put more Americans to work in the National Park System, helping sustain local communities across the country that are dependent on park and recreation tourism.

Each year outdoor recreation generates $887 billion in consumer spending nationally. Big Bull Creek Park in Edgerton, Kansas by RDG. Photos by IRIS22 Productions.

In addition to impacting national public lands, the GAOA will positively impact states and cities.  For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Program is a federally funded grant program that provides 50 percent match funding for outdoor recreation area development and land acquisition. The program provides an excellent opportunity to develop a wide range of high-demand outdoor recreational projects which, in recent years, have included things like skate parks, playgrounds, new and renovated swimming pools, sports complexes, campgrounds and multipurpose trails. 

Cities and counties across the country are eligible for access to the LWCF, but competition can be intense. Thanks to the GAOA, endowments in the LWCF have greatly expanded, and the program was permanently funded at the full funding amount. According to an interview with Nick Dellaca at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, following GAOA passage, Iowa’s annual allocation for the LWCF nearly doubled. In 2020, Iowa received approximately $2.8 million in funds that are split equally between local government (counties and cities) and state projects. Now that the bill has passed, the state is poised to receive between $5 million to $6 million in future years. 

The amount of LWCF grant money available to cities and counties depends on the population.  The population categories and respective grant amount ceilings can be seen here.

What the GAOA Means for Local Parks and Rec

For local governments, an influx in funding means more money for cities and counties and thus, more money for in-demand park and recreation-related projects. Because of the matching money the fund provides, it also means that funds budgeted for projects can go twice as far. The result of all of this is that more communities can cultivate greater economic development through rural revitalization with a focus on recreation.

The process of navigating through funding and grants can be complex. Often, the best place to start is thorough ideation and planning. Below are a few considerations around getting started:

  • Identify short- and long-term goals and objectives for what various projects might achieve for the citizens and culture of your community. While vague and generalized aspirations can help guide the decision-making process, it’s the clear and bold ambitions that produce the strongest, clearest direction for how and where to spend an influx in funds.

  • Engage with community members to best understand what they want to see in park and recreation spaces. There may be priorities that rise to the top from community engagement sessions that help decision-makers better define next steps.

  • Develop master plans and engage in programming practices to help visualize what’s possible and subsequently fuel fundraising efforts. Design firms such as RDG can be a valuable partner in helping communities develop these plans and practices.

In addition to providing 7.6 million jobs in the outdoor recreation field, public lands help local economies thrive by supporting hospitality and retail businesses. Jester Park Nature Center in Granger, Iowa by RDG. Photos by IRIS22 Productions.

Our clients, partners and peers who are passionate about creating places that benefit future generations will find that the additional resources provided by the LWCF are an opportunity. If communities are granted funds through the application process, they can invest in new park infrastructure, acquire land that benefits outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat, support maintenance practices or programs for current park infrastructure and provide new spaces for outdoor education. For communities that have stalled projects – especially those projects that were developed based on principles that benefit the land, the water and create connections to the outdoors – now is the time to move these projects forward. Doing so can help build momentum, which, in our experience with public park projects means implementation and, ultimately, impact. Having set a foundation for project work through the development of a vision, scale, location and program needs assessment for projects, will position communities and cities to leap toward these momentum-generating opportunities.

Outdoor recreation is a window to the past, present and future and it connects us to the ecosystems that help us survive and thrive. Perhaps the greatest power of the Great American Outdoors Act is that it renews our emphasis on and commitment to these natural spaces. The work of conserving, repairing and maintaining these spaces is critical to our nation’s economy and identity, and the GAOA gives us the power to care for these spaces in a proper way. It not only helps protect the places we cherish but gives endless opportunities to educate our youth on the land, water and wildlife that sustains our communities.

The next time you need a walk in the woods or want to try out a new fishing pole or head out camping with friends, think about everything that goes into funding, preserving and improving your public lands. Enjoy them, share them and care for them. They are our greatest legacy.

Written by Molly Hanson, Conservation and Community Outreach Specialist