Implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act
STATEMENT OF SHANNON A. ESTENOZ, ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR FISH AND WILDLIFE AND PARKS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, REGARDING IMPLEMENTATION OF THE GREAT AMERICAN OUTDOORS ACT.
February 9, 2022
Chairman King, Ranking Member Daines, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior (Department) on implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act.
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) is a historic legislative achievement that combines a financial commitment to conservation and recreation for future generations with a significant investment in the facilities needed to carry out the Department’s important mission, including the care and maintenance of America’s national treasures. GAOA combined two major conservation initiatives into one legislative package: the guarantee of permanent full funding for the existing Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the establishment of a National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund.
The investments being made through this historic Act are coming just in time as people are clamoring for more access to the outdoors. Parks and other public lands and waters have provided critical opportunities for respite and rejuvenation for the American public. GAOA funding will enhance conservation and recreation opportunities in local communities, support the annual multibillion dollar outdoor recreation economy, and improve access to America’s treasured places for many years to come.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
The LWCF was established by Congress in 1964 to fulfill a bipartisan commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. Annual funding is shared by the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). LWCF funds at the Department support grant and Federal land acquisition programs at the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). LWCF funding for USDA supports grant and Federal land acquisition programs at the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service).
GAOA authorized permanent full funding of $900 million annually from the LWCF each year, ensuring the Nation’s commitment to conservation and recreation endures for future generations. The LWCF is based on a simple concept: take revenues derived from the depletion of resources – specifically offshore oil and gas – and use them to conserve natural areas and cultural resources and to enhance opportunities for outdoor recreation. Of the $900 million provided by GAOA for FY 2021, funding for the Department totaled $681.9 million, including $401.2 million in grants to states and other partners and $280.7 million for Federal lands programs. For FY 2022, the Administration proposed $681.9 million for the Department, including $398.6 million in grants to states and other partners and $283.3 million for Federal lands programs.
The investment made through LWCF to expand outdoor recreation and conservation of America’s lands is integral to President Biden’s call to action that we work together to conserve, connect, and restore our lands and waters for the sake of our economy, our health, and our well-being. The Biden-Harris Administration has launched “America the Beautiful,” a decade-long challenge to pursue a locally led and voluntary, nationwide effort to conserve, connect, and restore the lands, waters, and wildlife upon which we all depend, and fully funded LWCF program made possible through GAOA will support this effort.
The Department’s Federal programs include land and easement acquisition activities in the BLM, FWS and NPS. Each program has established processes and criteria to select projects which support their specific mission and address risks to the land or resources, expand recreation, have strong partner involvement and local support, and have willing sellers. The Department seeks to maximize these investments by prioritizing the protection of at-risk resources, expanded opportunities for public enjoyment of and access to the outdoors, engagement of a broad and diverse audience, and strong local support and partner involvement, through the project selection process.
The Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act allocated the first year of funding for the GAOA programs, and the Department has made considerable progress since then. A few highlights of that progress include:
The Department looks forward to continued engagement with all LWCF stakeholders as we work together to develop the potential of LWCF programs with the full and permanent funding made possible through GAOA.
National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund
The Department is responsible for administering and implementing GAOA’s National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund (LRF) program for the NPS, FWS, BLM, and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). For FY 2021 through 2025, Congress authorized up to $1.9 billion annually to be deposited in the LRF for projects that reduce deferred maintenance. The annual deposit is equal to 50 percent of energy development revenues from oil, gas, coal, alternative, or renewable energy on Federal land and water credited, covered, or deposited as miscellaneous receipts under Federal law in the preceding fiscal year. Of the annual funding, 70 percent is allocated to the NPS, 5 percent is allocated to the FWS, 5 percent is allocated to the BLM, 5 percent is allocated to the BIE, and the remaining 15 percent is allocated to the Forest Service.
The Department has relied on the subject matter experts in each of its bureaus to develop project selection criteria and a process to formulate prioritized LRF project lists. The Department provided four parameters to the bureaus, which has guided the project selection process to-date: achieve a significant deferred maintenance reduction; maximize return on investment; safeguard those we serve, our partners, volunteers, and workforce; and rehabilitate assets to support conservation and recreational opportunities for years to come.
Using these parameters, in FY 2021, the Department prioritized 165 projects to address critical deferred maintenance and improve transportation and recreation infrastructure in national parks, national wildlife refuges and recreation areas, and at BIE schools. The average project size is $9.4 million and it is estimated that the deferred maintenance addressed by these projects will be $1.23 billion. Congress finalized the allocation of these funds in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and projects are underway across the country. Examples of that progress include:
The Department built on this effort for FY 2022 and prioritized 63 projects with an average project size of $20.5 million and an estimated $1.20 billion to be addressed in deferred maintenance. Of this, the NPS prioritized 36 projects, with a total program cost of $1.25 billion, that will address more than $835 million in deferred maintenance. This funding will improve the condition of roads, buildings, utility systems, and other assets in 29 park units located in 23 states and will address critical life, health, and safety issues, as well as related code compliance and accessibility deficiencies. Funding will also be used to remove dilapidated and unneeded structures that detract from the visitor experience and attract vandalism. The FY 2022 final allocations are pending resolution of FY 2022 appropriations, and the Department continues to work with the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations to address questions and provide updates.
Finally, the Department is considering its outyear priorities for FY 2023 – FY 2025 as part of the budget formulation process, which will be published with the President’s Budget Request, as required by the GAOA. This process is built from the ground-up, as parks and their counterparts in other bureaus identify condition deficiencies in their assets and develop projects to address those deficiencies. Those projects are then reviewed and prioritized across appropriate funding sources. For example, at the NPS, while the LRF is the newest and largest source of deferred maintenance funding, the NPS balances its priorities across multiple discretionary, mandatory, and supplemental appropriations to ensure funding is distributed to meet the most critical needs across parks as conditions and funds availability changes. For example, prioritizing large-scale deferred maintenance projects for FY 2021 and FY 2022 LRF funding created space in the NPS’s discretionary Line-Item Construction plan to accelerate work on other projects such as the visitor center and headquarters of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia. It also allowed Line-Item Construction to support replacement of windows and climate control systems at the historic Old Courthouse at Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri, which otherwise would have been delayed due to revenue losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the work described above to formulate and execute the LRF program of projects, the Department has also continued efforts to more consistently and accurately report the condition of its assets, in order to ensure that progress, supported by GAOA and other resources, is appropriately documented. In particular, the NPS is nearing completion of a multi-year effort to comprehensively review and reform the systems and processes used to manage its assets, including a streamlined condition assessment methodology in conformance with industry standards.
We are embarking on a new era for America’s outdoors with unprecedented funding, expanded recreation opportunities, and broader engagement. Through significant investments from the GAOA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and a commitment to the public-private collaborations and outreach to diverse new audiences, we will enhance conservation and recreation opportunities in local communities and on public lands across America. We look forward to working together to ensure our country’s national parks and public lands remain relevant, inclusive, and accessible to everyone.
Chairman King, Ranking Member Daines, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.