Infrastructure conversation must include America’s public lands and waters

Reposted from The Hill–original article.

By Jessica Wahl, Opinion Contributor — 05/16/19 10:15 AM EDT

When outdoor enthusiast Mikah Meyer arrived in Washington, D.C., this month, it wasn’t just another typical springtime tourist visit. As Meyer climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he was completing a specific quest — to visit all 419 National Park Service sites three years to the day after he began.

Inspired by his late father’s love of road trips, Meyer, 30, set a Guinness World Record by becoming the youngest person to visit all National Park Service locations, as well as becoming the first to visit those 419 sites in a single continuous road trip.

While Meyer’s journey was extraordinary, it’s important to remember that millions of Americans visit our public lands and waters every single day of the year, totaling over one billion visits annually. Whether it is a family vacation to an iconic national park, weekly fishing trips or part of a daily commute, our public lands play an essential role in supporting quality of life, local jobs, and a vibrant national outdoor recreation industry.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, outdoor recreation makes up 2.2 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and supports more than 4.5 million jobs across the country. The outdoor recreation industry — which is growing faster than the economy as a whole — contributes $734 billion to the U.S. economy. This is more than other major sectors such as mining, utilities, and computer and electronic products.

The same day Mikah Meyer arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, two other Americans paid a visit to a national park site about a mile away. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) entered the White House to discuss infrastructure, and they emerged with good news: a “general agreement” with President Donald Trump that $2 trillion should be made available to fix our nation’s roads, bridges, rails, ports, airports, water and sewer systems, and energy and telecom grids.

We agree that support of “traditional infrastructure” is vital for America to remain competitive, prosperous and safe. We also believe that an infrastructure package represents an extraordinary bipartisan opportunity to not only rebuild our crumbling roads, bridges and airports, but also to improve the beloved infrastructure on federally managed lands and waters — our green and blue infrastructure.

Sadly, many roads, trails, marinas, campgrounds, and other outdoor structures and natural infrastructure are desperately in need of care. Simply put, we have Eisenhower-era recreation infrastructure at a time when visitation has increased and visitors depend on safe roads and bridges, attractive open spaces, clean public waters, and 21st century amenities. The national parks alone are facing a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

The benefits of encouraging the outdoor recreation economy are clear. When Americans participate in outdoor recreation, they purchase gear, equipment, food, lodging and more, and contribute $65.3 billion in annual tax revenue to federal coffers. Investing in our natural recreation assets and building recreation infrastructure is a smart investment, with a recent study confirming that every dollar invested in the national parks returns $10 to the U.S. economy.

Additionally, much of America’s recreation infrastructure on public lands and waters is already associated with revenue streams from recreational activity — fishing and hunting licenses; entrance and activity fees; campground, slip and launch fees; recreation permits and registration fees; and excise and fuel taxes.

Outdoor recreation is paying into the system and we must be part of any legislation to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. We look forward to working with Congress on opportunities to address the maintenance backlog and to implement policies that allow for public-private partnerships to help ease the backlog and significantly enhance the experience for visitors to public lands and waters.

As Congress tackles our nation’s infrastructure challenges, outdoor recreation needs to be at the table. Mikah Meyer — and all Americans who enjoy our National Park Service sites and other public lands and waters — deserve contemporary and thoughtful solutions that will improve the health and vibrancy of communities and economies across the country.

This week is Infrastructure Week, a period of education and advocacy that brings American businesses, workers, elected leaders, and citizens together around one message: America’s future will be shaped by the infrastructure choices we make today. If members of Congress choose today to make investments in outdoor recreation enjoyment and stewardship of America’s iconic public lands and waters, then they will, at the same time, be supporting and expanding American jobs, our economy and priceless outdoor experiences for generations to come.

Jessica Wahl is executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR), America’s leading coalition of outdoor recreation trade associations and organizations working to promote the policy and legislative reforms needed to enhance the outdoor recreation economy.