A proposed public works program would send conservation crews to scores of national parks and other federal sites, such as Bandelier National Monument, to complete up to $2 billion in improvements each year.
It would not be the first time the federal government put unemployed people to work at Bandelier. In the 1930s, young men working with Civilian Conservation Corps camped there at Frijoles Canyon while they built the road into the monument and over 30 structures.
They were among millions of people the government employed for nearly a decade in the 1930s and ‘40s constructing roads, buildings and other infrastructure, and completing environmental work at national parks through a pair of public works programs.
Some 90 years later, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and several colleagues in Congress are hoping to create a modern-day version of the 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps, which largely focused on improving national parks and historic sites around the nation.
The Great American Outdoors Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and written in collaboration with conservation groups, is a bipartisan effort. The legislation calls for using a portion of federal revenues from the oil and gas industry to create a fund of nearly $2 billion a year to employ up to 200,000 people nationwide in outdoor maintenance projects, including millions of dollars worth of work in New Mexico.
Workers would upgrade facilities in national parks and national forests, on federal wildlife refuges and on school sites overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“We will be a stronger country if we can provide a new generation of Americans with new opportunities to serve their nation and leave their mark in a positive way,” Heinrich said Wednesday during a teleconference call about the legislation.
“We need to rebuild infrastructure in our national parks,” he said, adding such a program is even more necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many people are out of work and looking to the great outdoors as an escape from weeks of self-isolating at home.
“These are places that heal us and help us heal each other,” Heinrich said.
The bill would also provide annual revenues for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which repeatedly has seen its funding stream cut over the years. The fund is used to pay for a range of environmental and national parks projects, from preservation of wildlife habitat to trail building to water protections.
Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, called the Great American Outdoors Act the equivalent of “the 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps.”
The program could employ between 10,000 and 20,000 people in New Mexico, he said.
He cited 16 potential projects in the state, including at Bandelier and Pecos National Historical Park. The bill includes the amount of funding each project would receive — $14.6 million for Bandelier and more than $8.3 million at the Pecos park — but does not specify the type of work to be done.
Axie Navas, head of the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division, said workers in such a program could also help address “trashed trails and abandoned campfires” — the unpleasant remnants of people overpopulating forests and parks during the pandemic. Some 33,000 New Mexico residents are employed in various aspects of outdoor recreation, Navas said. Based on a recent survey by her division, however, many small and rural businesses in the outdoor recreation industry are facing severe revenue losses.
About 20 percent said they don’t expect to rehire the majority of their employees for at least three months.
Heinrich said he expects the Great American Outdoors Act to be heard on the Senate floor next week.
While the measure has bipartisan support, he said there could be attempts to add amendments altering some projects in some states.
“I’m optimistic that we will be able to overcome any opposition on the floor and probably turn down any proposed amendments to the legislation as well,” he said.