WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed legislation Tuesday to devote nearly $3 billion a year to conservation projects, outdoor recreation and maintenance of national parks and other public lands following its overwhelming bipartisan approval by Congress.
"There hasn't been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect," Trump said, referring to the 26th president, an avowed environmentalist who was responsible for many national parks, forests and monuments that millions of Americans flock to each year.
Supporters say the Great American Outdoors Act is the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century. Opponents countered that the money isn't enough to cover the estimated $20 billion maintenance backlog on federally owned lands.
At a White House bill-signing ceremony, Trump didn't give Democrats any credit for their role in helping to pass the measure, blamed a maintenance backlog that has been decades in the making on the Obama administration and claimed to have deterred a march to Washington that had been planned to tear down monuments in the nation's capital. No such march was ever planned.
The Great American Outdoors Act requires full, permanent funding of the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund and addresses the maintenance backlog facing national parks and public lands. The law would spend about $900 million a year — double current spending — on the conservation fund and another $1.9 billion per year on improvements at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and range lands.
In the budget proposals he has sent to Congress, Trump had previously recommended cutting money allocated to the fund, but reversed course and requested full funding in March. Interior Secretary David Bernardt said the law will help create more than 100,000 jobs.
The maintenance backlog has been a problem for decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations. Trump falsely claimed it was caused by the "last administration."
The bill received significant support from congressional Democrats, but no Democratic lawmakers attended the ceremony and Trump, in his remarks, credited only Republicans.
Minnesota has five National Park Service sites, led by Voyageurs National Park in the far north. Voyageurs has a backlog of $10 million in infrastructure needs. The four other sites are Grand Portage National Monument, Pipestone National Monument, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
But the act is important to outdoor recreation throughout the state because it will significantly upgrade the financial strength of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Over the past five decades, the federal program has contributed nearly $80 million to outdoors projects throughout Minnesota.
Among the bill's congressional champions were Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana. Both are among the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents, and each one represents a state where the outdoor economy and tourism at sites such as the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks play an outsize role.
Daines and Gardner persuaded Trump to support the legislation, which Gardner has made the cornerstone of his re-election campaign.
Staff writer Tony Kennedy contributed to this report.