In a state with a $26 billion outdoor recreation economy, the proposed federal Great American Outdoors Act is welcomed news among conservation advocates and could bolster the backlog of deferred maintenance projects at Michigan’s national and state parks.
The legislation, which would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9.5 billion for maintenance projects on federal land, has broad bipartisan support and passed the U.S. Senate 73-25 in June. Now supporters await the House of Representatives’ vote, hoping members will act before Congress’ August recess and clear the way for the president’s signature. Although President Donald Trump isn’t celebrated for his environmental protections, he has said he would sign the bill if it lands on his desk.
“Whatever the (political) dynamics, what we like is that there is support for it and there is bipartisan support,” said Bentley Johnson, senior partnerships manager for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “The momentum is there, and the time is now to get this done.”
Michigan Republican Congressman Fred Upton recently called the bill a “major victory for our public lands as well as the local economies and natural ecosystems that they sustain.”
“Our national parks are real treasures, and we must always work together to conserve their beauty and protect the great American outdoors that we all cherish,” Upton said in a statement.
The act offers substantial support for the nation’s public lands and outdoor recreation in two ways. The bill guarantees full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), meaning the maximum of $900 million annually would go to support land acquisitions, facility improvements, and large and small recreation projects across the country.
Michigan received $2.7 million from the LWCF last year, and the act’s passage would bump the state’s allocation to $5.7 million, said Ron Olson, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division.
The LWCF’s matching grant program allows state parks and local communities to build boat ramps and fishing piers, campgrounds, bathroom buildings, trail enhancements and generally improve and expand public recreation facilities.
While a boost to the LWCF would help, the state parks system alone — not including trails or waterways — has a $270 million backlog in infrastructure improvements, including $50 million in “high need” projects.
“The need is still very great because infrastructure is a big deal,” Olson said. “The (possible) $5.7 million coming from the feds is going to help, but each city, county and town has its own list. It’s good, but certainly there’s a lot of needs out there. This is a very positive thing to at least get it funded at a full level.”
The campaign to secure maximum funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been going on for decades. The League of Conservation Voters and its state affiliates, among others, have helped lobby for the bill and raised awareness of the fund’s help to safeguard natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage.
Among conservationists, the LWCF is largely considered the best federal revenue stream for expansion and protection of public lands.
“It’s really the nation’s premier conservation tool in terms of protecting new places,” Johnson said, noting part of the LWCF program goes to acquiring new national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges. “The COVID pandemic has shown the importance of preserving nature and protecting ecosystems.”
Supporters want to see a guarantee for LWCF funding levels. More than $22 billion has been diverted from the fund to other government programs since it was created by Congress in 1964. Johnson said it is also a way to support public health outcomes, equal access to recreation and the overall ecotourism economy.
“We are focused on being a part of the national coalition to get it across the finish line,” Johnson said. “We really feel like it is a great model and a proven job creator within the outdoor recreation industry.”
National park needs
The act also addresses pressing needs at national parks, allocating $9.5 billion over the next five years for the National Park Service and other federal land management agencies to address maintenance issues. Public lands have racked up $20 billion in deferred maintenance, with nearly $12 billion of that needed for the National Park Service, according to the federal agency.
Beyond enhancing the visitor experience with trails and campgrounds, national parks across the country need wastewater treatment systems, clean safe drinking water for visitors, and improved buildings, roads and bridges, Johnson said.
Michigan has a variety of federally managed lands, including Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores, Isle Royale National Park, River Raisin National Battlefield Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park and four national forests.
The national lakeshores and Huron-Manistee, Ottawa and Hiawatha National Forests have all benefited from the conservation fund in the past, and officials have identified $50 million in deferred maintenance needs in the state. Johnson said Sleeping Bear Dunes in northern lower Michigan has more than $16.3 million in deferred maintenance projects, including almost $7 million for historic preservation on historic homes and cultural sites.
“That’s really critical in Michigan,” Johnson said. “From the U.P. all the way down to the very southeast corner of Michigan, there are national parks and national park units that are very popular, and they really tell the stories that define and unite us as a nation. The funds in this bill will really take care of these resources as well.”
Supporting of outdoor recreation
The LWCF uses revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties to expand and protect park areas and support various projects on federal, state and locally owned public lands. Every single county in the nation has benefitted from the LWCF program, but the fund generally receives $450 million a year — roughly half of the program’s $900 million cap. The rest is typically diverted to other government programs during the appropriations process, Johnson said.
Michigan’s LWCF allocations have totaled more than $342 million over the past five decades, supporting the Forest Legacy Program (FLP) to help protect working forests and other projects that promote access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation on federal land.
The program also distributes money to state agencies, such as Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, which then awards the money through a matching grant program. Native American tribes, school districts, and government agencies authorized to provide recreation can apply, with grants ranging from $30,000 to $300,000. Projects include boat ramps, sports facilities, playgrounds, river walks, bike paths, cultural preservation and acquiring land for public use.
The fund’s state assistance grants have benefitted hundreds of projects across Michigan’s state and local parks, including Brighton State Recreation Area in Livingston County, Presque Isle Park in Marquette County, Proud Lake Recreation Area in Oakland County, the North Country National Scenic Trail, and improvements on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park.
Brad Garmon, director of Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, said his office would not directly benefit from the act, but investing in natural recreation areas is another tool to help attract companies and employees to the state.
Michigan is the first state east of the Mississippi to have such an office, and his job is to grow outdoor recreation jobs and businesses that serve the industry.
“To grow the economic side of it, you have to invest in the asset,” Garmon said. “That means the great outdoors, clean water and trails.”
In Michigan, outdoor recreation annually generates more than $26 billion in consumer spending with 232,000 direct jobs and more than $2 billion in state and local tax revenue.
“Our ability to compete with Utah and Colorado depends on me being able to sell our great outdoor resources,” he said. “We need to put that money into the great places we have to canoe and camp and kayak and take your pontoon boat.”
Johnson said he would put the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities up against any state in the nation. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have recognized the importance of having access to parks and recreation for mental and physical health. LWCF projects help protect air and water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreational access all across the state and nation — and with it comes tourism and consumer spending.
“We’re at a critical moment with our economy, with our health, with our access and with our way of life where we have an opportunity to permanently fund these critical assets,” Johnson said. “People really love to get outside. People spend their money on it, they spend their free time, and we need to invest in that.”