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Interior Releases Plan for Great American Outdoors Act Implementation
On November 20, the Department of the Interior task force assigned to implement the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) released details about its proposed fiscal year 2021 deferred maintenance and Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) projects. The announcement by the task force outlined the specific proposed maintenance projects on DOI lands, and the proposed federal LWCF projects that it was submitting to Congress for approval.
These details come after the signing on November 4 of Secretary’s Order 3388 that provided the Department’s guidance for overall implementation plans. When the Order was released in mid-November, it received significant push back from many organizations because it outlines fundamental changes in how LWCF federal funding could be used as well as increased emphasis on state priorities. The Order also outlines how GAOA funding must reflect the priorities of several Secretary’s Orders that have been put in place impacting recreational access, big game migration corridors and winter range, and wildfire reduction.
“Given the responsibility to manage this unprecedented conservation investment, Interior must carefully evaluate each action to maximize the impact of every dollar. We also must work collaboratively with our many partners,” said Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary and Chair of the Great American Outdoors Act Task Force. “We are committed to managing these resources in partnership with the states and others in the conservation community. During our deliberations on how best to implement GAOA we heard from a number of those partners, and the policy directives embodied in this SO reflect those conversations.”
The Order provides guidance for updating the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Manual authorizing the ability to use stateside LWCF funds for acquisition or easements of land that support Endangered Species Act listed species, conservation efforts under State Wildlife Action Plans, wetland protection, and conservation of big game winter range or migration corridors in connection to SO 3362. In addition, it expands traditional recreation-based funding under the stateside LWCF program to include shooting sports facilities or for use to increase safety in urban parks, among other things.
For the federal LWCF program, the Order prioritizes acquisitions for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service and emphasizes acquisitions that facilitate public recreational access or to acquire inholdings. It requires that no less than 20% of proposed projects be spent on urban communities and parks (jurisdictions of at least 50,000 people) and for easements. Perhaps most notably, the order requires that a written expression of support from the affected governer and local government is required for federal land acquisitions, and that proposed acquisitions must be within existing designated boundaries under the Department’s jurisdiction as of the signing of the order.
Congress is still required to approve specific spending direction for LWCF projects and has yet to complete the fiscal year 2021 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies appropriations bill at this time. Many members of Congress reacted negatively to the announcement that they felt undermined the intent of the GAOA. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), who is a member of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt asking for the Order to be rescinded.
“I am deeply concerned by the Department of Interior’s repeated attempts to undermine LWCF over the last two weeks,” wrote Tester. “Secretarial Order number 3388 issued by the Department today puts further restraints on LWCF, one of our nation’s most critical conservation and public land access programs. I urge you to immediately rescind this anti-public land order.”
Secretary’s Order 3388 went into effect immediately and the Order specifically notes that “termination of this Order will not nullify the implementation of the requirements and responsibilities effected herein.”