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caption: Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell helped push through the Great American Outdoors Act, speaking on the Senate floor with a picture of Mount Rainier on June 17, 2020.
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Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell helped push through the Great American Outdoors Act, speaking on the Senate floor with a picture of Mount Rainier on June 17, 2020.
Credit: Screenshot / Courtesy of U.S. Senate

Sen. Cantwell explains why a newly-passed conservation bill is so important

The U.S. Senate has passed a historic conservation measure in a bipartisan fashion that's been kind of unusual over the past few years.

The U.S. Senate has passed a historic conservation measure in a bipartisan fashion that's been kind of unusual over the past few years.

It's called the "Great American Outdoors Act." One part would provide billions of dollars to tackle a maintenance backlog in the national parks. Another part would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire and preserve land.

Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington has been a proponent of the measures and spoke with KUOW’s Angela King about them.

Angela King: Why is this act so important?

Senator Maria Cantwell: Well, access to public lands is incredibly important to our nation. We think of it probably more clearly today when you see things like the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier National Park, but it also has given access in our urban areas to regional parks and to hiking trails and public lands are restored. They help us get out of ourselves and into nature. And because of that they provide a real respite for the American people. And right now America really deserves a break.

So how will Washington state benefit specifically?

First our backlog and maintenance of our parks. There are wastewater treatment facilities that need to be fixed at Olympic National Park. There are trails at Mount Rainier that can be expanded. When you think about the Covid crisis and the fact that you want to keep your distance and you want to get more access -- obviously, places around the Northwest, some of our trails are pretty crowded, so having more access to them and to the facilities and making them COVID safe is a great aspect of the bill.

A lot of Republicans swung over to support the measures. What was behind that switch?

Well, I think a few years ago, we started really emphasizing the economic value of public lands, definitely been a couple of debates in western states about public lands, about the fact that mining and drilling had polluted public lands, had polluted clean water, had degraded the environment and that actually preserving public lands was just as economically it's actually more important than those activities. And I think that local actions created a real focus that people were tired of leasing our land for these activities and really wanted more public open space. So that helped. And then a report done by the outdoor industry emphasized that the outdoor economy at $877 billion was third just behind finance and healthcare as the third most important economic return to our economy. That really helped us get people's attention.

And there's talk too, that the president may have kind of switched up a bit as a way to help to GOP senators in tough re-election fights, saying it is important to help communities struggling in the pandemic.

The president has the worst environmental record, probably will go down of any president. And the fact that he has tried to roll back monuments, tried to roll back environmental policy on safe drinking water and other environmental requirements on issues like mining and drilling. So I think the fact that now he's trying to throw a hail mary to people will be well understood by the voters across America. I think these public lands being so impacted by not putting the money where it was supposed to go, that is to say that people had basically collected the money and then not used it for public land was too important of an issue not to correct. We have to get the right dollars going where they're supposed to go as they were well intended.

So what's next for the measure?

We're hoping the House will just take it up and pass it. My colleague, Representative Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, a great advocate for public lands, hopefully will steer that through the process. My guess is you're going to hear a lot of complaints from those who don't like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, who've been the real group that has held back the money that is supposed to go to public lands in the past, they will probably try to hold up Mr. Grijalva. I think the Senate vote shows that it was such a bipartisan measure, it should just go on the House consent calendar, but my guess is Mr. Grijalva will still have to fight that battle.