Rob Wallace was on the outside looking in during 2016, when the federal government coughed up $23 million to acquire a single square mile of Wyoming-owned property, encompassed by Grand Teton National Park land in the Antelope Flats area.
The transaction, enabled by a $23 million match from the Grand Teton Park Foundation, boosted the size of the park by about 0.2%, protected a swath of Jackson Hole’s scarce untrammeled sagebrush-steppe landscape and ended decades of threats from Wyoming lawmakers to sell the land to the highest bidder. The deal also exhausted an entire year’s worth of Land and Water Conservation Fund money.
“That $23 million constituted the entire Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriation for that entire year throughout the country,” Wallace told the News&Guide. “This bill would provide a lot more running room for public land access.”
The bill Wallace refers to is the Great American Outdoors Act, which he now has a vested interest in. A former Teton Park ranger who splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Teton Village, Wallace is the Trump Administration appointee overseeing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The legislation he’s pushing would provide the Park Service with about $1 billion annually for five years to chip away at a deferred maintenance backlog, which totaled nearly $12 billion when it was assessed in 2018. Another approximately $900 million annually would be available to whittle down deferred maintenance projects that have stacked up on U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education properties.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, meanwhile, would be permanently fully funded by the legislation, which would mean about $900 million — a big bump over variable appropriations that often total just a fraction of the fully-funded potential. As it is, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a giant in the land preservation sphere, having funded nearly 42,000 projects to the tune of nearly $4 billion over its half-century in existence, according to the Interior Department.
Wallace said there’s good momentum in Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, which he dubbed a “generational type of initiative.” It has garnered bipartisan support for the legislation that extends to the executive office in D.C., he said.
“It’s one of the few times that the president of the United States and the majority and minority leaders in Congress all agree on an initiative,” Wallace said.
The Great American Outdoors Act has made it through the committee process and is slated to go before the full U.S. Senate today.
But there are detractors, including the Equality State’s two senators.
Mike Enzi, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, has criticized how the bill would increase the federal deficit by over $17 billion over the next 10 years.
“This bill is just the latest in an unprecedented spending spree Congress has been on for the past year,” Enzi said in a statement.
The senator from Thermopolis has instead proposed raising park entrance fees to pay down the National Park Service’s overdue maintenance. He did not propose a mechanism to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and criticized how the bill requires an automatic appropriation to preserve wild spaces.
“Mandatory spending is always renewed and never voted on or evaluated again,” Enzi said. “Instead we are taking away that protection and increasing mandatory spending even more without increasing revenue.”
Wyoming’s other Republican senator, John Barrasso, told Wyoming Public Radio last week that he’s a supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but shares Enzi’s concern over the Great American Outdoors Act.
“Washington will be given authority to buy more private land in Wyoming, and I don’t think that’s the right approach,” the senator told WPR.
Many other Republicans in Congress are on board. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is the primary sponsor. On Monday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President Land Tawney wrote a joint column in The Hill encouraging the legislation’s passage.
“Opportunities to advance conservation and access — and build alliances across the divide — deserve to be widely acknowledged and strongly supported,” the trio wrote. “For this reason, the three of us — a Democratic senator, a Republican congressman, and a CEO of a group representing a diverse constituency of hunters and anglers, are coming together to urge Congress to listen to the American people and throw their support behind the Great American Outdoors Act.”
If the act doesn’t get bogged down in the Senate with polarizing amendments, Wallace said he thinks the bill has a shot of clearing the U.S. House of Representatives.