N. Cascades National Park upgrades funded
Supporters of public lands, outdoor recreation and wildlife are celebrating the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act earlier this month.
The legislation, co-authored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, will invest billions of dollars to maintain and preserve public lands, including national parks, in Washington State and throughout the country.
The Methow Valley, with its vital connection to public lands and outdoor recreation, can expect to see benefits from investments in and around the valley. North Cascades National Park, the Methow Wildlife Area, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Methow Valley Ranger District are eligible for support through the new legislation.
“For all of us who’ve fought for years to protect our public lands and invest in our outdoor recreation economy, today is a historic win for America’s beloved shared spaces,” Cantwell said when the bill was signed into law on Aug. 4. “The positive impacts of this legislation will benefit generations of Americans.”
A key element of the Great Outdoors Act is permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal program created 55 years ago to protect national public lands and waters — including parks, forests, wildlife refuges and recreation areas. The LWCF also provides matching grants to states to acquire and develop public parks and recreation, to conserve habitat for threatened and endangered species, and to protect environmentally sensitive forest lands.
The Act authorizes $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is about two or three times the amount usually allocated. Each year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies for offshore oil and gas drilling are put into the fund, but Congress has consistently diverted much of that money to uses other than conservation.
Because the funding comes from offshore oil and gas royalties, “it will not cost taxpayers a dime or add to the national debt,” Cantwell said.
Maintaining national parks
The Great American Outdoors Act also invests $9.5 billion in overdue maintenance projects on federal public lands throughout the country. The National Park Service will receive $6.65 billion to address a historically underfunded backlog of deferred maintenance in national parks. The Forest Service will receive $1.425 billion, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education will each receive $475 million.
North Cascades National Park, the closest national park to the Methow Valley, is among national parks and recreation areas in Washington that are expected to receive funds for long-overdue maintenance projects, said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“North Cascades National Park needs a total of about $31 million to fix and repair needed facilities and trails, which will provide better access to the park, clean water to drink, and bring jobs to the local area,” Smith said. Some $23 million of that amount is deferred maintenance, according to the National Park Service.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is what the doctor ordered — access to the outdoors … and healthy places to go with families. Plus it brings jobs to American communities right now. What it means for the North Cascades is making this extraordinary scenic and wild landscape available and protected for generations to come,” Smith said.
Among projects planned for North Cascades National Park is relocating the Thornton Lakes trailhead parking, which provides access to backcountry just off Highway 20 west of Newhalem, Smith said.
“On the east side (of the park) there are some projects in the Stehekin area which are good examples of important things which many visitors won’t notice — wastewater treatment facilities. For those seeking access to Ross Lake along Highway 20, the park plans to redo the fuel dock there,” Smith said.
Two of the state’s other popular national parks, Olympic National Park and Mt. Rainier National Park, have $127 million and $186 in deferred maintenance projects, respectively, according to the National Park Service.
The Pacific Crest Trail, which traverses the North Cascades above the Methow Valley, is likely to be another beneficiary of the new law, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA).
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been used to acquire and protect about 33,000 acres along the Pacific Crest Trail over the past 18 years, said Mark Larabee of the PCTA. “About 10 percent of the trail still crosses private property with the footpath protected only by a simple easement,” he said. “These properties could one day be covered with buildings or power lines. Purchasing them (only from willing sellers) will preserve the wilderness trail experience Congress intended.”
The Great American Outdoors Act received strong bipartisan support, despite the current political polarization in Congress. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73-25 and the House of Representatives by a vote of 310-107.
“Even in these intensely divided times, the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act shows that public lands, conservation and outdoor access continue to be held dear by Americans across the political spectrum,” said Chase Gunnell of Conservation Northwest, based in Bellingham.
Gunnell said funding the LWCF and increasing appropriations for the Forest Service and other public lands agencies “will support the natural heritage critical to Washington’s quality of life, as well as the massive outdoor economy it supports, generating more than 201,000 direct jobs and $26.2 billion in consumer spending in our state.”
The law also helps restore habit and boost conservation for threatened species, including Chinook salmon, lynx and wolverines, Gunnell said.
All but one of Washington’s representatives in Congress voted in favor of the Great American Outdoors Act. Gunnell called out Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside), whose district includes the Methow Valley, as the only member of Washington’s delegation to oppose it.
“Unfortunately, instead of supporting his constituents who hike, camp, ride horses, fish, hunt or otherwise enjoy central Washington’s spectacular outdoors, and the small businesses that benefit from tourism and recreation dollars, Rep. Newhouse … chose to spread talking points frighteningly similar to those of anti-public lands special interests,” Gunnell said.
In a statement, Newhouse said the Great American Outdoors Act would “increase federal land grabs and hurt rural communities” that have large areas of land under federal ownership. He said he supported several aspects of the legislation, but opposed permanent funding for the LWCF, saying it would allow “special interest groups and career government employees to determine the scope and scale of future federal land grabs.”
Newhouse also said he wanted, but was not allowed, to offer amendments related to water supply infrastructure and funding for Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes programs.
Cantwell said the Land and Water Conservation Fund has “deep connections” with Washington State. It was created in 1965 by Washington’s longtime senator Scoop Jackson. Since then, it has supported more than 42,000 projects, including investing more than $725 million in 700-plus projects in Washington, according to information from Cantwell’s office.
It helps support Washington’s outdoor recreation economy, which generates $26 billion in consumer spending in the state each year, and supports more than 200,000 jobs, generating $7.6 billion in wages and salaries, Cantwell said.
Cantwell has been working since 2015 to strengthen the LWCF, leading efforts to reauthorize the fund when it expired for the first time in 2015, and introducing legislation last year to permanently reauthorize the fund.
A task force has been established by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to implement the Interior Department’s portion of the new Great American Outdoors Act. The task force will identify a list of priority deferred maintenance projects that are ready to begin in 2021, and will work with other agencies and tribes to implement the Act.