Response to Great American Outdoors Act mixed

SHERIDAN — While Wyoming’s congressional delegation voted against its passage, officials with the Bighorn National Forest and the Wyoming Wilderness Association expressed optimism about what the Great American Outdoors Act can do to affect access and experiences on Wyoming’s federally managed public lands.

The legislation, signed by President Donald Trump Aug. 4, will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and dedicates $9.5 billion to restoring infrastructure in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, Indigenous schools and public lands.

Sara Evans-Kirol, public affairs officer with Bighorn National Forest, could not provide specific examples of projects on the BNF’s list of deferred maintenance projects, but said it includes things like replacing roofs on cabins at administrative sites and water system repairs.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund invests earnings from energy development to provide grants to state and local governments as well as acquire land.

“The LWCF was specifically established to address shortcomings in access to quality outdoor recreational opportunities,” said Matthew Cuzzocreo, Wyoming Wilderness Association Bureau of Land Management wildlands organizer. “Our state contains some of the best and most unique outdoor recreational opportunities in the nation, but access issues and maintenance of ‘facilities’ in some of these locations impact the public’s ability to enjoy our public wild lands.”

He cited signage, bridges, trail drainage, bear poles and boxes and outhouses as just some of the examples of projects that could improve public lands for users.

While the president and conservation-focused organizations have touted the passage of the bipartisan bill, Wyoming’s congressional delegation voted against it.

““Like Wyoming Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, I opposed this legislation because it’s not in Wyoming’s best interest,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said via email. “This bill calls for spending $17 billion in taxpayer money to buy more private land at a time when the federal government can’t afford to take care of the public lands that it already holds.

“I do not support increasing mandatory spending, particularly at a time when we are facing a severe debt crisis and the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she continued. “Too often the federal government has proven to be a poor steward of our lands, and this proposal would only further empower D.C., while adding billions to our out-of-control deficit.”

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced an amendment to the Great American Outdoors Act that he said would have addressed the funding needed for deferred maintenance at national parks by raising entry fees.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., also expressed concerns about permanent funding of the LWCF and the mandatory spending included in the bill. But noted that the shift within the LWCF also created concerns.

“I support the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the many wonderful projects it supports in Wyoming,” Barrasso said via email. “Over the years, the program funding shifted from being locally focused to being primarily Washington focused. Instead of returning the LWCF back to its original intent, the Great American Outdoors Act gives Washington more authority to buy private land in Wyoming. We can't afford to maintain the public lands we already own. It's irresponsible to add more to the mix.”

While enthusiastic about the possibilities that exist with the passage of the bill, officials with the WWA also critiqued the way the legislation pays for projects.

“The fact that funding for the Great American Outdoors Act is tied to development revenues owed from energy production on public land and water is problematic, and points to our enduring dependence on that industry for more than just energy,” Cuzzocreo said. “The benefit, however, is that while we are still dependent upon those resources, this law now ensures that those royalty revenues do some good for conservation.”

In the meantime, Evans-Kirol said the USFS is working to provide priority lists to Congress regarding federal land acquisition and addressing deferred maintenance on national forests and grasslands.