When news reports last spring indicated a program that helps millions of children access public lands was in danger of expiring, Jackie Ostfeld knew she had to act.
The director of Sierra Club Outdoors and chair and co-founder of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, Ostfeld started activating the network of 100 members in the alliance to send a message to the Department of the Interior about the importance of the program, called Every Kid in a Park. (REI is a member and supporter of the alliance.) Established in 2015 under the Obama administration, Every Kid in a Park grants fourth-graders and their families in the United States free access to federal public lands, including national parks. In the program’s first year, more than two million kids downloaded a voucher off the Every Kid in a Park website, and 500,000 of those vouchers were exchanged for a free pass at kiosks in federal public lands.
“It really is a critical program to expand equitable access to our parks and public lands,” Ostfeld said. “It’s not a silver bullet to get all kids outdoors, but it is a really good starting point to make sure that all kids know the parks belong to them, and they are welcomed and valued there.”
More than 15,000 supporters of Every Kid in a Park submitted comments advocating for the program to then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last spring. During a meeting in June with military families, Zinke received a delivery of 1,000 handwritten postcards from children expressing why they loved their free park passes. Then, on June 11, 2018, the staff at the Department of the Interior took action to renew and continue the program for another school year—updating the pass and the website.
The campaign was a success. But the program supporters realized the need to make it permanent—to get Congress to put it in law.
Legislation in the Natural Resources Management Act, which the House of Representatives approved today in a bipartisan 363-62 vote, does just that. Among more than 100 other bills bundled into the public lands package, Congress authorized the Every Kid in a Park program—meaning it is now a codified, official program with a seven-year timeline—and changed its name to Every Kid Outdoors.
“I think there will be a lot of energy revived for this program,” Ostfeld said. “Americans, by and large, value our public lands and natural spaces. I think it’s a great sign that there are things that we agree on. And I’m happy to see Congress moving forward on areas where there are agreement.”
Approval of the bill in the House came just two weeks after it passed the Senate with a bipartisan 92-8 vote. Now, it’s on its way to the Oval Office for the president to sign into law.
The Washington Post called the Natural Resources Management Act the “decade’s biggest public lands package” for the millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of river it protects across the country, as well as the programs it preserves. That includes not only Every Kid Outdoors but also the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a 54-year bipartisan program that the LWCF Coalition and the Wilderness Society say has impacted nearly every county in the country.
“We like to call [the LWCF] the most important conservation and recreation program that no one’s ever heard of,” said Amy Lindholm, manager of the LWCF Coalition on staff at the Appalachian Mountain Club. “When we show people lists of all the places [the LWCF has benefitted], they are constantly blown away. Places [where] they grew up, places they love to go.”
Lindholm cited the many different types of places the LWCF has helped to create and support: from parks and playgrounds, to recreation facilities and swimming pools, to bike paths and boat ramps. On a federal level, Mary Mitsos, the president and CEO of the National Forest Foundation, says the LWCF is a tool that helps the U.S. Forest Service “immensely” to consolidate public lands.
“When private parcels are landlocked in the national forest system, and the owner is interested in transferring that to the [U.S. Forest Service] agency, the Land and Water Conservation Fund can make that happen more quickly than it would otherwise,” said Mitsos.
Once the Natural Resources Management Act passed in the Senate, Lindholm and LWCF advocates immediately shifted their focus to the House of Representatives. The Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and the ranking Republican, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, were both involved in negotiating the package before it went to the Senate floor, said Lindholm. Their support gave Lindholm confidence the House would take quick action to pass the bill.
“In my district alone, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has provided funding for over 65 parks, supporting public access, fishing, hunting, recreation and our environment without taking a dime of taxpayer money,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) in a statement in November, when he joined a bipartisan, bicameral coalition of members of Congress to voice support for the LWCF.
Today’s vote brings the Natural Resources Management Act—with Every Child Outdoors and the LWCF—one step closer to becoming law. Next, it will move to the White House, which could happen as early as this or next week.
“The Natural Resources Management Act is historic for its sheer scope, conserving millions of acres and reinforcing programs that benefit all Americans,” said Marc Berejka, REI’s director of government and community affairs. “But it’s especially heartening to see in this day and age that public lands can continue to unite our leaders. The outdoors can help us bridge political divides.”
To learn more about the bill, read the Co-op Journal’s Feb. 12 coverage, “Senate Passes Bipartisan Bill to Protect Public Lands and Waterways.”