President Donald J. Trump displays his signature after signing H.R. 1957- The Great American Outdoors Act Tuesday, August 4, 2020, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

For all the hype and excitement with which the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) was advertised by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and President Trump, it appears their signature conservation legislation was nothing more than an election-season façade.   

Signed into law in August, the GAOA was sold to the American public as permanently and fully authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million annually, and creating a five-year trust fund to reduce the multi-billion-dollar backlog in maintenance and infrastructure for national parks and other public lands. 

Much to the surprise of the Republican-controlled Senate, Bernhardt failed to submit two lists to Congress by a Nov. 3 deadline that detailed funding for priority projects. Not only that, but the secretary is engaged in a last-minute effort to block the intended implementation of LWCF funding and cement fringe anti-public lands views embraced by his leadership at Interior.

Cody M. Perry

The process and expectations for LWCF that Congress set forth in the Great American Outdoors Act are clear. Congress asked that this administration meet the deadline for submitting specific fiscal-year 2021 program allocations and project lists. 

Not only did the delayed delivery of these lists arrive late and lack basic information, they raised alarm bells around projects that had suddenly gone missing, including a $1 million project slated to protect working agricultural lands in the San Luis Conservation District.

Now more than ever, Colorado communities — and indeed communities across the nation — are anxious for LWCF money to start flowing during a time of economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Our outdoors are over-loved and increasingly busy places with record visitation almost everywhere. This trend will continue. 

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The landmark legislation passed earlier this year has huge potential to help preserve and manage lands while addressing the needs of rural Western communities by diversifying and strengthening local economies.

However, Bernhardt has his own agenda, unresponsive to the needs of the American people. Bernhardt has injected a litany of new restrictions to keep our local partnerships from accessing LWCF funds. 

Congress has specifically, repeatedly voted down arbitrary restrictions when passing the Dingell Act and then the Great American Outdoors Act. The GAOA is still an achievement we can be proud of as Americans, and one we ought to defend and build upon. Unfortunately, defend it we must.

In hindsight, all the pompous back-slapping and fallacious comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt at the White House bill-signing ceremony for GAOA should tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that neither Gardner, Bernhardt nor Trump has taken our public lands seriously. 

For Bernhardt, a Colorado native, this was just a minor retasking of an entire federal institution in providing a photo-op for a political party during the 2020 election season. One that invested more in keeping a couple Senate seats than the American lands that shape our very character.

It is imperative that every action of Bernhardt’s is watched to ensure he isn’t able to further sabotage or ignore the laws of this land. I call on Congress to now finish its work on LWCF spending for fiscal-year 2021 without regard to the Interior Department’s extralegal attempt to rewrite this incredibly popular and successful program. 

It is abundantly clear that Bernhardt doesn’t care about the lands and waters these funds are intended for. After building the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation, he sure wasted no time attempting to tear it all down.

Cody M. Perry is a filmmaker based in Grand Junction, specializing in stories about the Colorado River Basin’s land, water and people.

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Cody M. Perry, of Dolores, is co-founder of Rig To Flip, a media company specializing in stories about the Colorado River Basin, and a contractor for the National Parks Conservation Association focusing on Dinosaur National Monument.