America desperately needed some positive news and a reprieve from the coronavirus pandemic and rioting that is ripping apart our country — most notably in Seattle, Olympia and Portland.
We needed reaffirmation that our political leaders can come together, set aside bitter partisan differences, and act in our country’s best interests.
That actually happened in the course of the last month. The result would undoubtedly please the legendary U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) — the master problem solver.
In March, President Trump signaled he supported legislation that would fund the backlog of national parks and natural resources maintenance work. The money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was established in 1964, when Jackson, a prominent Democrat, sponsored legislation to put to set aside a portion of federal oil and gas royalties for repairs on public lands.
Over the years, the funds had been skimmed off for other purposes to the tune of $22 billion. “In Washington state alone, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has paid for more than 700 state projects, investing more than $725 million in everything from urban parks, such as Gas Works Park in Seattle, and recent upgrades to the boathouse at Green Lake Park, to trails all over the state and more,” Seattle Times environmental writer Lynda Mapes reported.
The problem was the funds were too easily diverted.
In June, a large bipartisan contingent from the U.S. Senate launched a drive to direct up to $9.5 billion over five years to address priority repairs mostly in national parks. In all, 59 senators co-sponsored the legislation, and it cleared the Senate with a 73-25 vote, including Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray supporting.
The legislation makes permanent the $900 million per year already reserved for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It also establishes the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund. In all, over 200 House members cosponsored the bill, including seven of 10 Washington Democrat and Republican House members. It passed the House 310-107. (All 10 voted for the bill).
National parks are areas of land protected by the government, often chosen for their natural beauty and ecology. In the United States, there are 59.
National parks, which have been closed much of the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attract millions of visitors each year. An estimated 331 million people visited national parks in the U.S. in 2017. They are among the most popular types of destinations for U.S. campers. Approximately 40 million people go on camping trips in the U.S. each year.
National park tourism benefits both the national and local economies. In 2017, visitor spending reached over $17 billion — around 30 percent was spent on accommodations and 20 percent in restaurants and bars. However, the pandemic has cut deeply into that revenue stream.
Washington has three national parks, and Mt. Rainier is the oldest. It was established as our country’s fifth in 1899. However, the most visited is Olympic, set aside in 1938. It draws three million visitors annually. The most remote is North Cascades National Park straddling the Cascade Divide.
Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is therapeutic. It is constructive in that it builds and repairs projects for all of us enjoy. That therapy is desperately needed to offset the looting, burning and destruction caused by rioters over the last 60 days.
Scoop Jackson was known for his ability to forge coalitions in Congress to get things done. He was a visionary. He saw a need and found a creative way to make it happen. Hopefully, that approach can work to root out our injustices and stem our current civil unrest.
Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He lives in Vancouver, Washington.