In a historic win for nature in western Kentucky and across the country, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to approve the Great American Outdoors Act. And on Aug. 4, the president signed the bill into law.

The Great American Outdoors Act combines two conservation proposals that each have strong, bipartisan support — fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and making major investments to care for our national parks and other public lands.

Parks, natural areas, rivers, and recreation areas are often at the center of vibrant communities. The critical role of these lands and waters has been highlighted in important ways in recent months, underscoring the need to conserve, maintain and improve public access to these places. Whether providing an outlet and relief during this pandemic or buttressing employment during an economic crisis, parks and natural areas are an essential component of a community’s strength and resilience.

Looking ahead, protecting important natural spaces and investing in their care will help create jobs, rebuild local economies and expand access to the outdoors that everyone has a right to enjoy.

The investments Congress and the White House have now committed to are critical to reigniting local economies across the nation, creating jobs and helping small businesses get back on their feet. They will support and stimulate the outdoor recreation industry that generates more than 5.2 million American jobs and contributes $778 billion in national economic output each year.

Kentucky’s own Sen. Mitch McConnell was a strong supporter of the bill in the Senate. Not only was he an original cosponsor of the legislation, but as the Senate majority leader he played an essential role in guiding the bill to final passage. In the House of Representatives, Congressman James Comer represented western Kentucky’s interests in a healthy, thriving outdoors by supporting the bill as well.

The investments in this bill are not just investments in conservation, but in people — both their access to nature and their jobs and livelihoods that often depend on it.

The first part of the Great American Outdoors Act will provide full and permanent funding of $900 million each year for LWCF, the amount it is authorized to receive from offshore oil and gas revenues, not tax dollars. Previously, although the money was there, Congress typically allocated the fund less than half that amount.

LWCF has helped preserve forests, open spaces, watersheds and other landscapes in every state. In western Kentucky, LWCF has invested more than $12 million in Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge, Kentucky’s first national wildlife refuge, which protects one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the region. Looking ahead, LWCF funds could be utilized to grow the new Green River National Wildlife Refuge. LWCF has already invested more than $132 million in projects across the commonwealth over the past five decades. Additional funding for LWCF will preserve more natural areas in western Kentucky, ensure their upkeep, and expand public access to continue the strong tradition of outdoor recreation in our state.

Research on the impact of LWCF shows that every $1 spent generates $4 in economic value from natural resource goods and services alone, and that every $1 million invested in LWCF could support up to 30 jobs.

The second part of the bill invests $1.9 billion annually for the next five years to help address a massive backlog of unmet maintenance needs at national parks and other public lands. The National Park Service alone reports over 325 million visits each year, bringing opportunities for safe places to exercise, rejuvenate and improve our well-being. And, the economic benefits from those visits support local communities. Visitor spending at stores, hotels, gas stations and restaurants supports nearly 330,000 annual jobs and over $40 billion in total national economic output.

Even beyond that, this bill will create additional jobs. The National Park Service is responsible for protecting and managing tens of thousands of roads and bridges, trails, historic buildings, employee housing, wastewater and electrical systems, military fortifications, monuments and memorials, and seawalls. Investments to fix these sites could generate nearly 110,000 additional infrastructure-related jobs.

All told, the Great American Outdoors Act will improve access to nature in places both close to home and worth traveling to when it is safe to do so — all while being a part of the solution for some of our economic, health and societal challenges.

Enacting the Great American Outdoors Act was the right thing to do for Kentucky and for our country. I hope you’ll join me in thanking Senator McConnell and Congressman Comer for supporting this new landmark conservation law. Enjoy the outdoors.

David Phemister is the Kentucky state director of The Nature Conservancy.

David Phemister is the Kentucky state director of The Nature Conservancy.

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