Great American Outdoors Act – landmark legislation

The Great American Outdoors Act became law yesterday. It is one of the most important pieces of outdoor and environmental legislation in our nation’s history. The act passed with rare bipartisan support, gaining even the President’s last minute flip and signature. National youth sports and outdoor leaders were jumping with joy today, as were those who care about our public parks and wildlands.

While decades in the making, the pandemic had made the time ripe. Outdoors is now the place to be; or as I like to say, outdoors is the new IN.

The legislation permanently allocates $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and provides $9.5 billion over five years to begin clearing a maintenance backlog at our national parks. The LWCF has an impressive track record of having built more than 40,000 public fields in our nation’s history, but lately has been depleted of funds through congressional bickering. Some of the money from the new act will fund additional national, state, and local fields, parks, and recreation areas. Infrastructure in existing parks will be repaired and replaced, resulting in more than 100,000 new jobs.

About 100 million Americans can’t find a park or green space within a 10 minute walk of their home; those most in need have the least. This legislation is not only expected to address that problem – which has adverse economic, health, and mental effects – but also slow the destruction of outdoor space and ecosystems. Every 30 seconds in America, bulldozers cover a football field of green space.

Some ask, “Why should public money be spent on outdoor recreation and sports, especially now?”

The best answer I’ve heard came from Andrew Ference, Director of Social Impact, Growth, and Fan Development for the National Hockey League, speaking today at an Aspen Institute conference of national sports leaders. He said it’s definitely not because we make elite athletes and win medals and create Olympic champions. In his words, “[t]hose are great outcomes and they are fun and make for good stories, but that’s not why we invest publicly in sports. That would be absurd.”

Ference said the best argument for investing publicly in sports is when it helps us in other areas where we are already spending money. Public fitness greatly reduces the financial burden on the public health system, both by preempting disease and improving mental health; it improves the absorption and retention of knowledge (education); and it keeps kids out of the justice system.

Speaking of health and fitness, did you know that sport was introduced at scale in the U.S. at the beginning of the last century as a tool of nation-building – a strategy for reducing trouble and building community fabric. It’s a fascinating and little known story. Hang around for a few more posts and we’ll share it.

Stay safe and healthy.

John Gartman

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