Guest Columnist

Outdoor investments benefit or communities, economy and nature

A phoebe perches on a tree stump in the Yellow River at a bird walk at Effigy Mounds National Monument north of Marquett
A phoebe perches on a tree stump in the Yellow River at a bird walk at Effigy Mounds National Monument north of Marquette on Saturday, May 14, 2016. Effigy Mounds is one of two national monuments in northeast Iowa that are taking part in the National Park Service Centennial year, and the annual bird walk is held to commemorate International Migratory Bird Day. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The critical role of outdoor spaces and nature has been highlighted in recent months, underscoring the need to conserve, maintain and improve access to these places. Whether helping us stay healthy during a pandemic, or providing employment during an economic crisis, natural areas have been there to make it possible. Looking ahead, protecting important natural spaces and investing in their care will help create jobs, rebuild local economies and expand access to the outdoors.

Congress has gotten the message. In a giant step forward for conserving America’s natural landscapes, the U.S. House and Senate recently approved the Great American Outdoors Act. The bill 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. These investments are critical to reigniting local economies across the nation, creating jobs and helping small businesses get back on their feet. It 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.

Iowa’s own Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer, Cindy Axne, and Dave Loebsack supported the bill, which was signed by the president this past week. 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 would 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.

Research on the impact of the LWCF shows that $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. In Iowa LWCF dollars have already been used to fund the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, and the Forest Legacy Project Maquoketa Caves.

The second part of the bill would invest $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.

All told, the Great American Outdoors Act would 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. Thank you to our Congressional delegation who supported the Great American Outdoors Act. It is refreshing to see an issue that can receive bipartisan support. The Nature Conservancy is proud to have played a role in the completion of this vital legislation.

Amber Markham is the director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa.

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