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Conservation groups praise movement on ‘Great American Outdoors’ bill COURTESY PHOTO

Conservation groups praise movement on ‘Great American Outdoors’ bill

BY Tuesday, June 23, 2020 05:58am

Michigan conservation groups are praising the U.S. Senate’s passage last week of a bill that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually for restoration projects and act as an economic stimulus for the outdoor recreation industry.

The Great American Outdoors Act — sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado — would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year. 

It passed 73-25, including supporting votes from Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan. With anticipated passage in the U.S. House, President Trump has indicated he would sign the bill.

The bill would also help address a nearly $20 billion backlog in deferred maintenance at multiple federal agencies by devoting up to $1.9 billion a year for the next five years to improve infrastructure on federal lands. Michigan’s national parks have roughly $50 million in needed upgrades.

“Addressing that deferred maintenance backlog is a huge win for people who use public lands,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “We know these lands can really be utilized for a broad perspective of recreation.”

According to MUCC, thousands of acres of public land in Michigan will benefit from the full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is supported by oil and gas revenue. Areas previously supported by the LWCF include the Huron National Forest and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

“The Great American Outdoors Act will ensure that Michigan’s national treasures like Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores remain protected for our children and grandchildren,” Stabenow said in a statement. “In addition to protecting our public lands, this bill supports thousands of good paying jobs that are part of our Pure Michigan tourism economy.”

While beneficial for conservation, advocates say the bill also acts as an economic stimulus that can help with pandemic recovery.

“Funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund … is going to help stabilize our economies that have been hit by the COVID shutdowns,” Trotter said.

Outdoor recreation also has been valuable during the widespread shutdowns, advocates say.

“The climate crisis threatens our land, natural resources and communities, which is why now, more than ever, we need to dedicate resources to funding land and water conservation and our public parks,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “COVID-19 has reminded us of how important our parks and public lands are for our health, recreation and solace.”

Over the past year, Michigan has launched a concerted effort to boost the state’s outdoor recreation industry amid declining revenue from traditional sources like hunting and fishing licenses. 

In September, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry within the Department of Natural Resources to coordinate the effort. 

A Michigan State University study commissioned by MUCC earlier this year showed outdoor recreation supports 171,000 jobs and $11.2 billion of economic activity in Michigan.

The Senate bill is separate from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act — sponsored by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan — which would dedicate funding for wildlife restoration.

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