Biden targets $2.8B for conservation, outdoor recreation

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed funding for dozens of conservation and recreation projects across the country as it allocates $2.8 billion in grants and programs authorized by a landmark conservation law enacted last year.

Congress approved the Great American Outdoors Act by wide, bipartisan majorities with a mandate to support rural economies, boost outdoor recreation and improve access to public lands. The law authorizes $900 million per year — double previous spending — for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and $1.9 billion per year on improvements at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands.

Projected spending in the next fiscal year includes $19.4 million to rehabilitate the popular Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park in California, and $91.3 million at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to replace the Yellowstone River Bridge and upgrade the wastewater treatment system at the park’s famed Old Faithful geyser.

On the other side of the country, the National Park Service is set to spend $27.4 million to repair historic structures at the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts, and $32.8 million to improve the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Minute Man is among those that will be featured in upcoming commemorations of the 250th anniversary of the United States.

The Interior Department also plans to spend a total of $77 million at Big Bend National Park in Texas to rehabilitate a water system and repair the Chisos Mountain Lodge, and $24.9 million at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio to stabilize its riverbank and support its well-used towpath trail.

All are popular tourist destinations that expect to see an increase in visitors as restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic ease.

The administration said the investments are consistent with and help advance its “ America the Beautiful” initiative, a decade-long, voluntary conservation effort that aims to protect nearly one-third of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

“One of the best investments we can make is in stewarding the lands and waters that sustain us and the generations to come,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “Today we are making critical investments that will create tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation.”

The spending plan announced Thursday also begins to address a multibillion-dollar backlog on maintenance, repairs and improvements throughout national parks and other public lands, Haaland said. “In particular, I am encouraged that funding for Bureau of Indian Education schools will help ensure that we are providing a safe and reliable space where students and educators alike can focus on learning,” said Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as interior secretary.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said national forests and grasslands “are places of refuge and enjoyment for millions of visitors every year.” Spending projects announced Thursday “set the framework for better access, experiences and partnerships that not only promote tourism and recreation, but also protect America’s public lands while creating jobs and opportunities in rural communities,” Vilsack said.