Two distinctive mountains called The Bubbles rise up above the ice of Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park in this March 3, 2020, photo. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Last February, on the heels of the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, Congress was able to muster some bipartisan cooperation and pass a significant public lands bill. A year later, despite an even more fractured political environment, lawmakers could be poised to build on that accomplishment.

A new package supporting America’s national parks and other public lands is now providing another chance for legislators and the White House to work across party lines and prove that enduring legislation is possible, even after a bitter impeachment process and ahead of what promises to be a combative 2020 election.

A group of senators, including Sen. Angus King, held a press conference last week to push for the passage of several public land proposals, including the Restore Our Parks Act, a bill led by King and several other senators aiming to address the $12 billion maintenance backlog threatening to diminish our national parks. This package of bills, which also includes permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that has supported hundreds of conservation and recreation projects across Maine, recently earned President Donald Trump’s public approval.

King, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on national parks, announced the formal introduction of the public lands package, the Great American Outdoors Act, on Tuesday.

“For too long, we’ve neglected our public lands and national parks,” King said. “The $12 billion backlog facing our National Parks is no way to treat America’s greatest idea, and too often funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund becomes a political pawn caught in the middle of other issues. This legislation would right these wrongs, and take the necessary steps to make sure America’s natural beauty can be enjoyed by generations to come.”

As of last August, Acadia National Park had more than $65 million in unaddressed infrastructure needs. For a park that generated nearly $390 million in visitor spending and saw a record 3.53 million visits in 2018, addressing this backlog is not only an operational imperative, but an economic one as well.

Sen. Susan Collins is also a co-sponsor of the Great American Outdoors Act, along with the individual Restore Our Parks Act and the bill to permanently fund LWCF. That program had been fully authorized in the public lands package passed last year, but full funding has yet to be guaranteed.

“By providing guaranteed funding for LWCF, this legislation builds on our recent accomplishment of permanently reauthorizing our country’s most successful conservation and outdoor recreation program,” Collins said in a statement Tuesday. “It would also allow the National Park Service and other federal agencies to complete much-needed repairs and maintenance on federal lands. I urge our colleagues to join us in this effort to protect our nation’s natural treasures for the benefit of all Americans.”

Like Collins and King, both Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden have signed on in support of the park backlog and LWCF funding bills. We hope the rest of Congress follows suit in recognizing the imperative of investing in public lands and outdoor recreation, which are also investments in local communities — often rural ones.

Golden and King have also introduced a bill to give Gold Star families — the immediate family of fallen U.S. service members — free national park access. Golden, a Marine veteran, noted in a press release that the original idea for the bill came from a constituent.

“Our bill is common sense: families of fallen servicemembers should have free access to our country’s most treasured places,” Golden said. “It’s a simple gesture, but it can make a difference in the lives of Gold Star Families and that’s important.”

We hope it’s not too complicated for Congress to include this simple, but meaningful gesture in the larger public lands package as well.

Addressing the National Park System backlog and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund is not an immediate need in the way the recently passed emergency spending package to combat coronavirus was. But like that bill, this public lands proposal offers another opportunity for sensible bipartisan action at a time when that sometimes feels impossible.

“The stars seem to be aligning,” King said last week. “I think what’s important is that you’re seeing a pent-up demand for legislation here, and for getting things done. That’s why we’re all here.”