In recent years, the federal government has seemed quite hostile toward national parks and the agency that runs them, the National Park Service. In 2018, the White House eliminated protections for over 2 million acres of monument land in Utah, making them available for commercial mining and drilling. The 2021 federal budget cuts funds for the Park Service by over half a billion dollars. But there was an surprising turnaround in the form of the Great American Outdoors Act, which was passed by the Senate on June 17, 2020.

The new act provides nearly $2 billion a year for the next five years ($9.5 billion total) to help the NPS and other federal land-management agencies bring their properties up to date.

The U.S. National Park Service was created in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, and was given a mandate “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The first director of the NPS was its chief author, the wealthy conservationist Stephen Mather. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt added all historic sites and national monuments to that mandate.

Federal public lands, always short-funded, have large maintenance backlogs. It is estimated that there is $12 million in deferred maintenance costs in the holdings of the NPS alone. The new act will cut a substantial share from that.

The other function of the Great American Outdoors Act is to mandate that the Land and Water Conservation Fund be permanently fully financed, to its allotment of $900 million annually.

What is even more of a surprise is that President Trump specifically advocated for this bill. Trump has publicly called the entire NPS a waste of public money and an imposition against companies which could “better” use the land, both before and after his election. The passing of this act through the GOP-controlled Senate is a remarkable breakthrough, and a relief.

Photo: A park ranger displays a temperature graph as he discusses climate change with visitors at Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center in Olympic National Park. Credit: Ken Schulze /