WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) delivered a speech on the Senate Floor in support of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act. On Monday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly 80-17 to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to consideration of the bill—a major step forward in it becoming law.
“We can all understand why investing in restoring and expanding opportunities in our parks and public lands has to be a part of our national recovery. These are the places where all of us belong," said Heinrich. "These lands are our lands, and they heal us in a way few things can. I think of all the generations of Americans who’ve cared for these places so that my family and I can enjoy them and learn from them today. With this historic legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act, we are going to help do our part to literally pay that forward.”
In March, Senator Heinrich helped lead a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Great American Outdoors Act, a landmark conservation bill that provides permanent and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and addresses the maintenance backlog in national parks and other federal land management agencies.
Read Senator Heinrich’s remarks as prepared for delivery below.
During these past months, in the midst of a pandemic that has kept most of us inside our homes, Americans have grown to appreciate in new ways how critical each moment of fresh air can be to maintaining both our physical health and mental wellbeing.
More people are getting outside than ever before, whether for a quick walk in their local neighborhood park or by seeking solitude on the many public lands held in trust by each and every American.
Coming from a state that is blessed with expansive skies and remote open spaces, I am convinced that investing in the future for our parks and public lands will be a key path for our nation to recover from the challenges we currently face.
That’s why I am so proud that we are coming together this week to bring the Great American Outdoors Act to the Senate Floor for a vote.
Our bipartisan legislation will permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and finally dedicate real resources to begin tackling the multi-billion dollar infrastructure backlog in our national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges.
If you’ve spent time enjoying your local parks, trail systems, ballfields or open space in the last 50 years, you have almost certainly experienced the impact of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In New Mexico, LWCF has been instrumental in protecting treasured public lands such as the Valles Caldera National Preserve, with its trout streams, high altitude meadows, and massive elk herd.
It helped us establish the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
It purchased and protected the entirety of Ute Mountain, a center piece of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
LWCF is also our most effective tool for opening up public access to our public lands.
Just recently, LWCF helped the Bureau of Land Management acquire land parcels that finally opened up public access to the rugged Sabinoso Wilderness in northeastern New Mexico.
The Sabinoso’s narrow mesas and spectacular canyon walls had previously been entirely surrounded by private lands.
Now, thanks to LWCF, the public can finally visit this incredible landscape that we all own.
LWCF also funds recreation areas, neighborhood parks, and sports fields in communities all across our state.
Last year, I was proud to be part of our successful bipartisan effort here in the Senate to permanently authorize LWCF.
However, without guaranteed, permanent funding, Congress still needs to approve LWCF expenditures each year.
This has resulted in us falling far short of the $900 million per year commitment that was originally intended when LWCF was established over five decades ago.
Permanently and fully funding LWCF will be a monumental victory for conservation and the places where we all get outside.
It might be the greatest investment we can make that will pay off for many generations to come.
Every one dollar spent by LWCF creates an additional four dollars in economic value just in natural resources goods and services.
That doesn’t even account for the long-term growth in the outdoor recreation and tourism industries.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
I believe this type of investment in conservation is exactly what he meant.
Now to the second leg of our landmark Great American Outdoors Act.
We all know how important it is to rebuild the infrastructure in all of our national parks.
You can’t enjoy visiting these iconic American places if the bathrooms don’t work, if the trails and campgrounds aren’t open, or if the roads are in disrepair.
These places that we all cherish, from our oldest national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite to our nation’s newest national park, White Sands National Park in New Mexico, deserve better.
I am proud that the Great American Outdoors Act also includes dedicated funding to address similar infrastructure needs in our national forests, our wildlife refuges, and our Bureau of Land Management lands.
And we have also included dedicated funding to address the unacceptable maintenance backlog at schools managed by the Bureau of Indian Education.
There are many BIE schools that serve students in Indian Country that are in a truly dangerous state of disrepair.
Through this legislation, we are finally going to make major progress on providing these students with the safe schools and educational facilities they deserve.
In the wake of our current economic crisis, rebuilding all of this critical infrastructure will provide tens of thousands of new jobs across our country.
It’s estimated that investing in fixing the National Park Service’s infrastructure alone could generate nearly 110,000 new jobs.
These investments will also create a lasting heritage that will grow the outdoor recreation economy and provide us all with more opportunities to get outside.
We know this can work.
The last time we faced an economic downturn on the scale we are experiencing today, Americans turned to our public lands.
In the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood well that out-of-work Americans were not without worth, but rather that they could leave an indelible mark on our country.
Over the years, I’m lucky to have met many men who served in the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps—or CCC Boys, as they called themselves.
While most of these men have now passed away, the trails, visitor centers, and other important infrastructure in our public lands that they had so much pride building almost a century ago will continue to serve this nation for a long time to come.
Throughout our long recovery, we will be a stronger nation if we can provide a new generation of Americans with meaningful opportunities to serve their country and leave their mark.
There is so much work we need to do to rebuild our country.
In the midst of a real national reckoning on race over these recent weeks, and as we continue to face the most severe economic and public health crises in generations, we should all be thinking about how we can rebuild our country in a way that includes all of us.
I firmly believe that this urgent goal is intertwined with our effort this week in the Senate to grow opportunities in our Great American Outdoors.
And that is because our public lands and outdoor places are fundamental to who we are as Americans.
They are the places where we can each find a real sense of belonging in this great country of ours.
I think we must acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that the outdoors have not always seemed like such a welcoming and accessible place for all Americans.
Many of our national parks have a fraught history with the tribal nations whose ancestral lands they stand on.
In New Mexico, many of our national forests were established on the very same lands that were deeded as Land Grants to families by the Spanish Crown.
Our public lands agencies have not always recognized that history.
And there remains much more hard work ahead to provide meaningful seats at the table in the management of these landscapes to the communities whose heritage and living cultural ties to them date back hundreds and even thousands of years.
We must also recognize that outdoor excursions that many of us take for granted are not always within reach for all of us.
I grew up exploring the outdoors on my family’s ranch and surrounding lands.
I strongly believe that just one opportunity to get outside can change a child’s whole world.
It can inspire a lifetime commitment to conservation and encourage the health benefits that come from an active lifestyle.
But far too many kids don’t have easy access to parks or open spaces.
According to the Trust for Public Land, more than 100 million Americans, including 28 million children, do not have access to a park within a 10 minute walk of home.
That number should be zero.
On top of just physical accessibility, many children grow up in households where their parents can’t afford a vacation.
Or they may feel rightfully unsafe in these public spaces, fearing an experience much like that of Christian Cooper in Central Park.
We are not solving all of these challenges with what we are voting on this week, but the increased investment in the Great American Outdoors Act will create more outdoor opportunities that I hope will truly benefit all of our children.
Because our public lands are places we should all be able to access regardless of the thickness of our wallets, where we grow up, or the color of our skin.
To learn about the natural wonders all around us and to really learn about our history by exploring the stories that reside in these places.
I don’t know of any easy answers to the numerous historic challenges we are facing as a nation today.
But I do know that the right answers will only come if they are based on an honest appraisal of our deep-seated history—the good and the bad, the inspiring and the painful.
I believe one of the best ways for kids, but really for all of us, to learn about that complex history is by visiting our public lands.
Let me share just one example.
When you visit El Morro National Monument in western New Mexico, you walk up to a massive sandstone rock wall that dominates the high desert landscape around it.
As you approach the cliff face, you begin to clearly see etchings and markings carved into the face of the rock.
These inscriptions give physical form to the history of many, many generations of people who have come through our state.
There are petroglyphs from indigenous cultures.
Right next to them, and in some cases even carved right on top of them, are the signatures of Spanish priests and conquistadors dating back to the late 1500s and early 1600s.
There are records left by American homesteading families traveling westward on wagon trains.
And you can find the names of U.S. Army soldiers, including the strange but true Army Camel Corps that trained nearby in the late 1850s.
Yes, you heard that right.
The military was testing out camels in the New Mexico desert long before it started testing out fighter jets, rockets, and satellites.
When you see all of these names and images left behind on El Morro’s Inscription Rock, you begin to appreciate how varied and also how messy the history of just this one place in our country is.
You begin the process of learning that we have always been a country filled with diverse, resilient people but also a country riddled with conflicts and shortcomings.
That’s why it’s so important to protect our parks and our public lands.
These are the places where new generations of Americans will learn about both our natural and human history.
It’s where they will go to find inspiration and chart new paths forward for our great nation.
For all of these reasons, I am so proud that we have come together on this legislation.
We can all understand why investing in restoring and expanding opportunities in our parks and public lands has to be a part of our national recovery.
These are the places where all of us belong.
These lands are our lands, and they heal us in a way few things can.
I think of all the generations of Americans who’ve cared for these places so that my family and I can enjoy them and learn from them today.
With this historic legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act, we are going to help do our part to literally pay that forward.
Mr./Mdm. President, we often invoke Teddy Roosevelt when working on conservation legislation.
I am not superstitious, but I admit that I always visit his bust here in the Capitol before an important conservation vote.
This bill is the first time in my career that we’ve done something truly on the scale of Teddy Roosevelt’s work.
And I stand here proud to be a part of it.