Elk NetworkOpening and Accessing America’s Great Outdoors

General | October 9, 2020

Below is an editorial about the Great American Outdoors Act authored by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation played a key, intimate role in helping the legislation become law.

As the Secretary of Agriculture, I have good news to share about the 193 million acres of our country’s national forests and national grasslands. Recently, President Trump, with bipartisan support, championed and signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act. This landmark legislation will enable federal land managers to make robust investments to address infrastructure projects on Federal lands, including national forests and grasslands. Our National Forest System lands are managed on behalf of all Americans to promote sustainable economic prosperity across broad sectors of the economy and to ensure our national forests and grasslands are healthy and productive so they can continue to meet the needs of citizens and communities, both now and into the future.

Each year our nation’s forest network connects approximately 300 million Americans to federally managed public lands.  The Great American Outdoors Act, sponsored by Senators Steve Daines and Cory Gardner, gives us a historic opportunity to make significant improvements to our visitor facilities, roads, bridges, trailheads, campgrounds, and other recreational sites and to secure and improve access to public lands for generations to come.

The Department of Agriculture is hitting the ground running to implement the Great American Outdoors Act. We are working with states, local communities, and partners to enhance the quality of the visitor experience in a way that boosts local economies, creates employment opportunities, and reduces our maintenance backlog.

A recent report released by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership highlighted the importance of the Great American Outdoors Act particularly in regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin where a small percentage of the national forests and grasslands are inaccessible to the public. The Forest Service is redoubling its efforts to make all the lands we manage accessible to their landowner, the American people.

To further focus this effort, I signed a Secretarial Memorandum in June 2020, which directed the Forest Service to increase access to National Forest System Lands by working with states, counties, and other partners and by streamlining and modernizing permitting processes.  This work is ongoing, and the Forest Service is actively engaging states, counties, and interested private sector partners to identify, establish, and sustain open and legal access to our nation’s public lands where access does not currently exist. Private property rights are fundamental, which is why we work hand-in-hand with willing landowners to acquire access to landlocked public land through a variety of means, such as land exchanges and purchases of land or right-of-way easements and other voluntary actions that work best for landowners.

With the permanent and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund provided in the Great American Outdoors Act, we are already addressing access issues by prioritizing funds for land purchases from willing sellers to those places where public access is lacking and for stateside grants supporting public access. The Forest Service has established a process for public identification of national forest and grassland parcels that have no legal access and has actively engaged with companies and other private sector stakeholders on mapping in that effort.

With the advent of digital mapping and GPS technologies that allow people to pinpoint their location in the field in relation to rights-of-way, property boundaries, and other features of interest, we have embarked on the vital effort to digitize and analyze thousands of historical right-of-way documents. Converting this information from paper to a digital online platform available to the public will enable greater accessibility to GPS-based mapping applications on the ground that show where legal access routes exist. It will also help us determine where to focus our work.

I am grateful for the legacy of conservation, for our outdoor heritage, and for the historic investments that President Trump and his Administration are making to increase the use and enjoyment of America’s public lands. The President understands the role that our public lands play in the lives of all Americans. We have been blessed with treasured natural resources.

When I was growing up on my family farm, my father always taught me to appreciate that “when it comes to the land, we want to leave it better than we found it.” I’m proud of the work done every day by the men and women of the Forest Service to improve the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s beautiful forests and grasslands and for their dedication to ensuring public access to our nation’s lands today and for generations to come.

(Photo source: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)