But there’s some good news that has quietly been under the radar but we should tout and celebrate: after years of inaction, Congress took the historic step to pass one of the largest increases in funding for our parks, forests, and playgrounds in American history.
And they did it with overwhelming bipartisan support in both congressional chambers.
This will be a legacy of conservation that will benefit our kids and grandkids for decades to come, and in an era of a lot of difficult news, this something we can celebrate.
This act by Congress is the Great American Outdoors Act, which ensures permanent, dedicated funding to our nation’s most important conservation program – the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
While most Americans haven’t heard of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, there isn’t an American who hasn’t enjoyed a great outdoor place that’s been protected by this program.
When we set out on a hike on the Appalachian Trail or sit down for a picnic in our neighborhood park, it’s often the Land and Water Conservation Fund that has helped make that possible.
For more than 50 years, the LWCF has preserved and improved federal, state and local parks and open spaces.
This includes iconic sites like Valley Forge, Gettysburg and Allegheny National Forest. But it also includes playgrounds, neighborhood ball fields and swimming pools in communities across the commonwealth.
In fact, over the years LWCF has supported projects in every single Pennsylvania county, totaling $325 million in investments going towards more than 1,200 projects statewide. That includes Southwest Gardens Park in Farrell, North Sharon Recreational Area, and Wengler Playground in Sharon.
But despite this program’s long-standing success, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has consistently been raided by Congress.
A total of $22 billion has been diverted from the program over the years, and ongoing efforts to permanently reauthorize and fund this program had stalled.
But this past summer, Congress delivered a historic victory for conservation efforts across the country and that will pay dividends right here in Pennsylvania: Passing the Great American Outdoors Act into law.
This will ensure permanent and dedicated funding for the LWCF.
To put a finer point on it: the Great American Outdoors Act allocates $900 million annually for protecting public lands, as well as an additional $9.5 billion to help address the backlog of maintenance and repair needed in national parks specifically.
DCNR will prioritize funding from the LWCF using our recently completed Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan — Recreation for All.
Priorities include rehabilitation of existing public parks, trails and recreation areas; developing waterway access; trail projects to close Priority Trail Gaps, and acquisition of new park land in high need areas.
This victory has been a longtime coming, and was the culmination of years of organizing and advocating by a broad coalition of conservation, hunting, fishing, and recreation groups alongside local leaders and elected officials from both parties to make this historic win a reality.
Pennsylvania’s own members of Congress played a critical role in its passage, with Sen. Casey and 14 out of 18 members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation — including Rep. Kelly — voting for the Act.
And it couldn’t come at a better time.
As the public health crisis has upended our daily lives, we’ve sought respite in the natural world.
Whether it’s taking our families for a picnic in the local park, fishing in a quiet creek or enjoying a hike in the cool forest, we’re turning to nature more than ever.
The next time you go out to one of Pennsylvania’s great outdoor places, take a moment to reflect on this incredible legacy and victory, and know that thanks to the hard work and dedication of the many people involved in making this happen, it will be protected for generations to come.
Cindy Adams Dunn is Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and has worked in both public and non-profit roles in conservation. Stephanie Wein is the Clean Water & Conservation Advocate for PennEnvironment, the statewide citizen-based non-profit environmental advocacy group.
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