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GAOA Provides Vital Funding for Public Lands

The Great American Outdoors Act was a huge win for the outdoor community. Here’s some of the ways it will help Washington.

Last year, the outdoors community celebrated a massive land conservation win, the largest such win in a generation. When the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed, it was the culmination of years of work by advocates across the country — including Washington Trails Association and many of our partners right here in Washington state. 

Last summer, as the legislation worked its way through Congress, we asked for your help. And you stepped up. You contacted your lawmakers and urged them to support this vital funding for our public lands. On more than any other item last year, you all showed that Washington hikers are a powerful force.

Goat Lake
Goat Lake is one of many popular destinations off of the Mountain Loop Highway. Great American Outdoor Act funding will support recreation around the Mountain Loop, and across the state. Photo by Marshall Sutcliffe.

The GAOA has two main areas that will make a big difference for hikers here and across the nation. First is funding to take care of a massive backlog of maintenance on federal lands. Up to $1.9 billion dollars will go to federal lands each year, for up to five years. That means that trails, campgrounds, roads and many other facilities will finally get desperately needed resources for repairs and general upkeep. Second is permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund of $900 million annually. The LWCF helps pay for land acquisition and recreation investments. 

“We are thrilled to see this overdue investment in Washington recreation system and even more excited that so many of the proposed projects fit so nicely with our longterm vision of Trails for Everyone, Forever,” said Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director. “We hope that, by working with agencies and our partner organizations, this funding will provide a jumpstart for some comprehensive planning and conversations about how to improve our state’s outdoor recreation infrastructure for the long haul.” 

Finally, funding

Getting funding for the backlog on deferred maintenance on federal public lands has been WTA’s biggest advocacy priority for a decade. Now that the funding is finally there, thanks to the actions of so many of our partners and advocates, we’re looking forward to what that will actually mean on the ground. The money will be split between five different federal land management agencies: the National Parks Service (70%), the Forest Service (15%), the Bureau of Land Management (5%), the Fish and Wildlife Service (5%) and the Bureau of Indian Education (5%). With full funding of deferred maintenance, those splits would mean that annually, an agency like the Forest Service could receive up to $285 million in funding. 

Snoquera Falls
The views at Snoquera are spectacular. Photo by Wyatt Schill.

Here’s a few ways that funding will begin to make a difference:

  • The Mountain Loop Highway: This road, which stretches from Granite Falls to Darrington, offers excellent opportunities for outdoor recreation. Because of this, and its proximity to a growing population, the Mountain Loop is a key area for WTA’s Trails Rebooted campaign. We’ve been working there for years doing trail maintenance, and last year, we developed and hosted a survey to understand how people use the lands accessed from the highway. Part of the funding from the GAOA will go toward improving the hiking experience on the loop and funding projects like replacing the bridge that provides access to the Big Four Ice Caves. Investments like these will ensure the trail system will be there for years to come.
  • Milk Creek bridge: More than a decade ago, major storms wiped out the Milk Creek bridge over the Suiattle River, outside of Darrington. When that bridge was lost, so was a key gateway to the Pacific Crest Trail. This bridge has been a poster child for WTA’s Lost Trails Found campaign and we have been exploring how to secure funding to replace the bridge for years. The GAOA could finally make the work possible. The bridge is on the list of projects for fiscal year 2022. And while building such a bridge won’t be fast, it’s exciting to see the progress. Once that bridge is in place, and trails have been restored to link up to the PCT, many miles of exploration will open up for hikers and equestrians. And having easier stock access to the PCT will help with annual maintenance work by WTA and partners.
  • Snoquera: Snoquera, an area northeast of Mount Rainier and just outside of the national park, is within an hour’s drive of nearly 5 million people. WTA has also identified this area as key to our Trails Rebooted efforts. Snoquera can provide much-needed recreational opportunities while dispersing some users from the national park. The Great American Outdoor Act could provide funding to the area to continue planning and work to create more trails and other ways for people to get outside. 

For many years, the U.S. Forest Service has been extremely strained financially. They’ve had very little capacity to deal with maintenance issues or plan for the future. The GAOA will start to change that and WTA will continue to work closely with the Forest Service to help them plan for the future. And WTA is also helping bring other trail users — such as mountain bikers and equestrians — together to make the planning process more efficient and powerful. We’re excited to work together to make the future brighter for everyone who loves the outdoors.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.