This story was updated to correct a misstatement by Southern Environmental Law Center federal legislative director Anders Reynolds on the time period of investment that should have said the act invests $2 billion a year in programs over the next five years, not decade.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday is expected to vote on the Great American Outdoors Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation applauded by the Southern Environmental Law Center — one of the federal government's more vocal regional critics — for its funding of public lands maintenance and protections for years to come.
Despite Washington's current tumultuous political climate, supporters of the act believe it could be a bipartisan shoo-in when the votes are tallied on what has been called the most important legislation for national parks in 50 years.
The bill 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, directing up to $9.5 billion over five years to address priority repairs in national parks and other public lands, according to law center spokesman Scott Smallwood.
"One of the benefits the Great American Outdoors Act will extend to our region is important funding to public lands found in the Southern Appalachian Mountains," Smallwood said. He said the region's portion of the Appalachians is "a premier destination for escape, exploration and adventure for outdoor enthusiasts nationwide."
The center's federal legislative director in Washington, D.C., Anders Reynolds, said combining the two funds in the act makes sure future generations have the same special places to enjoy.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, permanently authorized last year, "allows the federal management agency to acquire new lands for public recreation and also supports several federal conservation programs, including the [U.S. Forest Service] Forest Legacy Program," Reynolds said Tuesday. "It also provides financial assistance through both formula and competitive grants to states working on conserving state or local land."
In Tennessee, conservation fund money has been used to acquire lands for Tennessee State Parks, the Cherokee National Forest, boat launches and river access points on the Ocoee River and other amenities such as trail heads for the Big Frog Wilderness, Reynolds said.
"The second title in the bill dealing with deferred park maintenance doesn't earmark funding for separate projects, but rather it directs land management agencies to decide how to prioritize projects," he said.
"Several national parks near Chattanooga are deserving of these monies, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which with its status as America's most popular national park means it faces an estimated $233 million of deferred maintenance costs from wear and tear," Reynolds said.
The Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park has nearly $50 million in needed repairs to infrastructure and landscaping, he added.
The act, if it becomes law, will address the maintenance backlog in national parks across the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, was a lead champion of the bill through the Senate, working over the last couple of years to "help address the maintenance backlog in the Smokies and other national parks across the country," Alexander's spokesperson, Ashton Davies, said Tuesday.
"In fact, he recently called this bill 'the most satisfying' of his career," Davies said, referring to Alexander's statements after passage of the Senate version in June. It passed June 17 in a 73-25 vote, legislative records show.
Third District U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a cosponsor of the bill, said in a statement that "the key aspect of the Great American Outdoors Act that impacts Tennessee the most is the money made available to complete deferred maintenance projects that are currently backlogged in our national parks and other public lands."
4th District Rep. Scott DesJarlais didn't respond Tuesday to a request for his thoughts on the bill and how he planned to vote.
In a June statement, Alexander called the act the most important legislation for America's outdoors in half a century, noting it will halve the $12 billion maintenance backlog in U.S. national parks, including more than $224 million in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the most visited park in the country.
"Here is what this means for Tennessee – it means that places like the beautiful Look Rock Campground in the Smokies, which has been closed for several years because the sewage system doesn't work, will have the resources needed to reopen so the 5,000 families who camp there each year can continue to enjoy it," Alexander said.
"And the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee, which suffers from a $27 million deferred maintenance backlog and welcomes more visitors each year than most of the western national parks, will have its roads and trails restored," he said. "And then in West Tennessee, the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, which has about $8 million of maintenance work that needs to be done on boat ramps and boat docks, will receive the support it needs as well."
Reynolds said the act will easily win the support it needs.
"The scope of the bill is certainly historic," he said. "It invests nearly $2 billion a year over the next five years in programs that touch on everything from recreation to environmental justice to public health.
"But it may be even more noteworthy for its popularity. Having passed the Senate 73-25 last month, it boasts 170 Democrats and 30 Republicans as cosponsors. Those members alone nearly constitute a majority. That tells you something about its popularity," he said.
"There are many issues that grind to a halt in D.C. as victims of partisan bickering, but I think tomorrow's going to prove that investing in greater access to wild places isn't one of those issues," Reynolds said.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.