In late 2021, U.S. Senators Manchin of West Virginia and Barrasso of Wyoming co-sponsored “America’s Outdoor Recreation Act.” The bill made it through the U.S. Senate committee structure. In late September 2022, Sen. Manchin reported it out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with a recommendation for passage by the 117th Congress.
The measure aimed to substantially enhance and improve recreation sites on federal lands, including campgrounds, and provide resources and assistance to communities adjacent to national recreation sites. The plan included the construction of pads and electrical, water, and waste disposal facilities on specific federal land holdings. S.3266 was a bill that specifically addressed the shortcomings of camping accommodations on the 640 million acres of public lands. Then, though scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate, the impending mid-term elections caused the bill to become stalled in committee.
S.3266 was a genuine, rare bipartisan undertaking that the executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, Jessica Turner, described as “a unifying force among members of both parties and chambers.” Yet, when federal budget appropriations turned deeply partisan in the late fall of last year, the Americas Outdoor Recreation Act fell victim to the Omnibus Spending Bill.
The Manchin–Barrasso bill contained funding provisions for constructing much-needed infrastructure improvements to recreational facilities on public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The prospective improvements included, among other things, the actual development of campground facilities, including water, electrical, and waste disposal, road improvements for better access, and financial and other assistance to the communities bordering the federal lands for the accommodation of recreational users.
The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) lauded the omnibus appropriations bill because it “… continues to fund the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account (ORSA), which provides an annual study into the economic impact of outdoor recreation.” (Emphasis mine)
When the hastily composed and unarguably partisan 4,155-page $1.7 trillion “Omnibus Spending Bill” for 2023 became the receptacle for all of the porcine lame-duck congressional spending appropriations, practically nothing was left of America’s Outdoor Recreation Act. The campground infrastructure improvement provisions were left out. The public-private cooperation for capital improvements was gone. Omnibus writers brushed aside virtually all of the S.3266 access and public-lands utilization improvement features.
The omnibus instead included a token $400 million for the National Park Service to fund deferred maintenance and modernization projects at campgrounds. It provides a paltry $25 million for the U.S. Forest Service to improve and construct campgrounds, $10 million for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds at lakes and reservoirs, $25 million for BLM campgrounds, and $3 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service to improve and construct campgrounds. How many campgrounds do you think the F&WS will build for $3 million?
These figures are woefully inadequate in the overall scheme of the 2023 Omnibus bill. For perspective, we’re spending $34 billion on military and economic aid to Ukraine. $410 million went to fund border security for Arab countries. The omnibus appropriation provided funding for research and development of new “recreational technologies,” such as virtual and augmented reality.
The abandonment of America’s Outdoor Recreation Act was an atrocious missed opportunity to address the long-standing failure to make the vast public land holdings practically usable and accessible to Americans.
Is the Senate bill dead? Not necessarily.
Senators Manchin and Barrasso did not return calls to clarify the status of S.3266. Still, it is reasonable to believe that there remains sufficient bipartisan support for the bill to resurrect it for future consideration. It would behoove all interested in improving access to and infrastructure on the 640 million acres of U.S. federal lands to contact their senators and representatives and urge them to proceed with the Senate vote.