Great American Outdoors Act: A Victory for City Parks and People

Great American Outdoors Act: A Victory for City Parks and People
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On August 4, 2020 the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law. This landmark legislation guarantees that the $900 million deposited into the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) each year will be spent on conservation and park projects, and not be used for other purposes like in years past. The bill also establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Fund, which will invest up to $9.5 billion to address priority repairs in our national parks and other public lands. This is one of the most significant conservation/parks bills to be signed into law in decades.

The conservation/parks community has been working on full and dedicated funding for more than 20 years. In fact, I remember organizing coalition phone banks on LWCF full and permanent funding 17 years ago, prior to my work with City Parks Alliance.

LWCF State Side Program

Parks and green space have always played an essential role in our communities supporting public health, workforce development, local economies, clean air and water, and community cohesion. The LWCF provides grants to state and local governments through the State Side Program. These grants can be used to support acquisition, development and restoration of state, regional and city parks. These grants, totaling over $4.4 billion, have supported over 44,000 projects in 98% of the nation’s counties. Projects are driven by local priorities and matched with local dollars, to provide close-to-home recreation opportunities that are readily accessible to all Americans.

A program under State Side, called the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program (ORLP), provides federal grants specifically to cities for urban park projects in disadvantaged communities. City Parks Alliance works closely with our national urban park partners to advocate for increased funding for this important program. We also work with the National Park Service to educate our members on how to apply for these grants. In its short existence, the ORLP has created parks on former brownfield sites and vacant lots, increasing access to greenspace and recreational opportunities in neighborhoods that are predominantly minority and low income.

With the Great American Outdoors Act now signed into law, funding for city parks, primarily in low-income communities, is expected to increase substantially.

City Parks Alliance’s Role

The passage of this historic legislation occurred due to the years of work of over 1,000 diverse organizations including local park agencies and non-profits, conservation organizations, outdoor recreationists, businesses, sportsmen, and ranchers. While many of the organizations focused on the Federal Side of LWCF and the protection of large public lands, City Parks Alliance focused on the State Side and the impact that LWCF had on the local level, specifically in urban communities.

In 2013, City Parks Alliance created the bipartisan Mayors for Parks Coalition to provide a new voice for the need to fully and permanently fund LWCF. We worked with our members to help recruit mayors from all regions of the U.S., and from cities large and small.  City Parks Alliance empowered its Mayors for Parks Coalition to support the program through a variety of methods. Local media events with mayors and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel highlighted the positive impact that LWCF had on cities. These impacts were documented in newspapers across the country. Mayors for Parks Coalition letters were sent to Congress and the last two Presidential administrations. Bipartisan op-eds, coauthored by Republican and Democratic mayors, and CPA’s Executive Director, focused on the importance of local parks in their cities, including this piece in The Hill. I worked closely with mayors to introduce multiple LWCF resolutions at the US Conference of Mayors, which were then formally adopted, and sent to members of Congress. At each of our recent Greater & Greener conferences, the Mayors [for Parks] Forum’s participants urged 1,000 attendees to contact their representative about full funding for LWCF. These tactics, along with City Parks Alliance’s own advocacy efforts, including educational visits with administration officials, members of Congress, and staff from relevant agencies, all helped highlight the diverse positive impacts that LWCF has at the local level.

Our work with our mayors, park leaders, urban park organizational partners, and the broader LWCF Coalition enabled us to tell the story of the range of benefits of LWCF funding and the need for full funding to ensure that all Americans, regardless of where they live, have access to recreation opportunities. These years of work by a broad base of champions helped garner broad bipartisan congressional support, which in the end, resulted in the Great American Outdoors Act being sent to the President’s desk. On August 4, 2020 the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law.

Our Goal: Access to Parks for All to Enjoy

City parks are at the heart of resilient and equitable cities. During the coronavirus pandemic we have experienced a renewed and deeper understanding of the important role parks and greenspace play in our physical and mental health, as well as our economy. With the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, we expect access to parks and recreational opportunities specifically in underserved communities to be expanded, and are excited about this prospect. We will continue to educate our members about LWCF grant opportunities, while tracking the progress of LWCF projects. Submit your case study so we can share your stories of how parks are helping to revitalize communities and connect more people than ever to nature and outdoor recreation opportunities.

Thank you

So many organizations and individuals are to be thanked. City Parks Alliance thanks its Mayors for Parks co-chairs Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, and all of our mayors in the coalition from large and small cities across America, City Parks Alliance members, the national conservation community, individual park leaders, National Park Service staff, and of course, all of the members of Congress, from both sides of the isle, who have advocated for full and permanent funding.

During this challenging pandemic and ever-growing congressional political divisiveness, it is a pleasure to write about such an exciting and important victory. Let’s take this time to celebrate the passage of this historic bill and think about the tremendous impact it will have for generations to come.

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