Was the Great American Outdoors Act Just a Campaign Ploy?

The Trump administration stalls after touting conservation during the election

Trump Great American Outdoors Act
President Donald Trump signs the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“At some point, they’ll have to start thinking about the Republican Party and all of the incredible things we’ve done on conservation,” said President Donald Trump during the signing ceremony for the Great American Outdoors Act, a wide-ranging environmental bill with broad bipartisan support. 

The bill became law on August 4. Then, Republicans, Democrats and President Trump campaigned on it. But as Outside magazine points out, for Trump and the Department of the Interior — which has unfortunately (and potentially illegally) developed partisan tendencies — the passage of the blockbuster bill may have been more for show than for a concern for conservation.

What is the Great American Outdoors Act?

It provides up to $9.5 billion over five years for maintenance projects in our country’s national parks (of which there is a significant backlog) as well as $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Outside notes is permanent funding, though “at a quarter of the budget that was set for it in 1978, when adjusted for inflation.” While there was bipartisan support in the House and Senate to send it to the president’s desk, 100% of Democratic senators present voted yes on the bill versus only 53% of Republicans, and in the House 99% of Democratic representatives voted yes versus just 44% of Republicans present. 

What has happened since it became law in August?

Almost immediately, Trump began campaigning on the back of the GAOA. Most notably, former oil and gas lobbyist and current Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt potentially violated the Hatch Act by releasing a video touting Trump’s conservation record, in what appeared to be a campaign ad, just a week before the election. That’s despite Trump admitting he “wasn’t at all convinced” to support the bill until Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana and Cory Gardner of Colorado told the president “signing the measure would give him a significant conservation legacy,” according to The New York Times.

Where does the GAOA stand now?

The Department of the Interior had a deadline of November 2 to submit a list of projects it wants to fund when the GAOA money becomes available in 2021. “That should have been easy, because those lists were drafted all the way back in April to support the bill’s legislative progress,” writes Outside. But the department missed the deadline, and, in a statement to the magazine, seemed to put the blame on Trump, though the department is part of the executive branch. 

As it stands, the projects that should have received funding — including land acquisition deals — are in jeopardy; and until proven otherwise, it seems the Trump administration was more concerned with accepting credit for conservation than actually acting on it.

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