Grand Canyon

Renovations on the Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon National Park in 2010. Grand Canyon National Park/Flickr

Environmentalists, outdoor industry advocates and elected officials are all nervously awaiting news of which public lands projects will receive the first round of funding through the newly passed Great American Outdoors Act, according to reporting by Emma Dumain and Jennifer Yachnin for E&E News, a news organization focusing on energy and the environment.

This coming Monday (Nov. 2), is the deadline for the Interior Department to send Congress its selections for which deferred maintenance projects to prioritize for fiscal 2021, along with an up-to-date list of projects to be paid for through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Assuming the priority lists are handed over to lawmakers in time, it would give the Trump administration and its allies a chance to take another victory lap on the eve of Election Day — an opportunity to remind voters that the GOP is truly delivering on the landmark conservation law the president signed just three months earlier.

Advocates are cautioning, however, that just meeting a deadline mandated by statute won’t be enough to give the administration an automatic win.

“My understanding is the process at Interior is going well, and that they will be getting a list to Congress on or before the deadline,” said Marcia Argust, the director of the Restore America’s Parks project at Pew Charitable Trusts. “We are hoping that what we see is going to fulfill the intent of the law.”

For an administration that has been eager to burnish its environmental record in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign, a failure to meet the moment could alienate a core constituency that has been relying on smooth implementation of GAOA to boost local outdoors economies that have been failing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Two vulnerable Republican senators — Montana’s Steve Daines and Colorado’s Cory Gardner — have staked their reelection prospects on their work in shepherding this bill to President Trump’s desk.

And at a virtual briefing for Capitol Hill lawmakers and aides last week hosted by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, leaders of some of the largest outdoor recreation trade associations cited implementation of the public lands bill as the No. 1 salve the federal government could deliver to flailing businesses.

“The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act was an enormous victory — and the real benefit will show when this money flows to projects across the nation,” said Outdoor Recreation Roundtable Executive Director Jessica Turner.

GAOA, which passed back in August, fully and permanently reauthorized the LWCF at $900 million annually, plus created a five-year trust fund to drive down some of a $20 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects at national parks and on public lands.

The legislation laid out specific parameters for how the LWCF and maintenance backlog dollars should be allocated, and those watching this process closely will be paying attention to whether the administration’s priority lists — due within 90 days of the bill’s enactment, or Nov. 2 — conform to or depart from these parameters.

The LWCF portion of the bill stipulates that at least 40% of the program’s dollars must be spent on federal land acquisition and at least 40% must be allocated for outdoor recreation projects in the states.

Multiple sources told E&E News they don’t expect the list Interior sends to Congress next week to differ enormously from the list it sent to lawmakers back in April — which included more than $116 million for 61 projects requested by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. If there are major discrepancies between the two lists, that could be a red flag that something is amiss.

The deferred maintenance backlog component of GAOA specifies the percentage each agency can receive for projects under its jurisdiction and mandates that 65% of available funding must go toward nontransportation projects.

Observers will be scrutinizing this set of priorities to ensure compliance with the percentage requirements, as well as whether the selected projects will, as required, be on track for completion in fiscal 2021.

Click here to read the full report at E&E News.