There was celebration on Wednesday -- but also a little bit of surprise because of our political divisions -- as the US Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act.
While most of the attention was focused on permanently paying for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, there's another huge piece of the legislation overwhelmingly approved by the US Senate. That's billions to catch up on a backlog of projects for the crumbling roads, buildings, and infrastructure in the national parks.
"We've got a maintenance backlog across many of our investments that we have in our public lands," said Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). "And so this is a major, major down payment to address that backlog."
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The version of the bill passed Wednesday also unexpectedly expands the availability of those funds to other federal areas, like national forests and Bureau of Land Management facilities.
"I think this is a win on two different fronts," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT). "Number one, it's a win on not increasing entrance fees to parks. But it's also a win because of this bill there's going to be more wild areas people can go to. There's going to be better fishing access sites. There's going to be better hunting access because of this bill."
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had pushed unsuccessfully to raise the money for park upgrades by dramatically hiking entrance fees three years ago. The idea went over like a lead balloon, and we asked Sen. Daines why this is the better solution.
"Well this is an approach that we continue to keep our national parks open to all Americans," said Sen. Daines. "And we never want to have the price to get in as being an inhibitor to having that experience. We want to make sure we protect that Montana outdoor way of life that is for all Montanans regardless of the socioeconomic status."
Sen. Tester believes the investment is sound because it helps to expand outdoor opportunities, easing some of the crunches on the parks.
"And so, not only does it not increase the entrance fees, but it also is going to bring about more opportunity to the outdoors for folks who don't have to be millionaires to enjoy the outdoors if you know what I mean," said Sen. Tester.
"You don't have to own a big ranch. You're a public landowner, and quite frankly, there more we can amplify that, the better off our economy in Montana is going to be. And the better off the quality of life for Montanans, and visitors who come to enjoy those outdoors will have it," he added.
Sen. Daines is confident the allocation for public facility improvements and repairs will remain adequate in the years to come.
The Great American Outdoors Act -- which also includes $12 billion to help the National Parks and other agencies repair aging infrastructure -- now goes to the US House for approval.