On the two-year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act, parks around the country are seeing big, tangible improvements as a result of this historic bipartisan victory.
In the summer of 2020, conservationists around the country cheered when the Great American Outdoors Act overwhelmingly passed Congress with bipartisan majorities, authorizing billions of dollars for needed repairs at national parks and other public lands.
This victory was the culmination of decades of work and only possible thanks to the dedication of thousands of passionate advocates who wrote messages, called their senators and representatives, and visited every single congressional office, demanding that lawmakers fund critical repairs and conservation needs at our national parks.
In just two years, the Great American Outdoors Act has funded more than 220 repair projects across the National Park System while contributing $3.8 billion to economic output and creating more than 36,000 jobs.
Here are just nine of the much-needed improvement projects actively underway at parks — from trail repair to interpretation to plumbing — as a result of this landmark bill.
1. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail is one of the top destinations at Cuyahoga Valley, serving 1.5 million visitors each year. But increasingly intense storms caused by climate change have worsened runoff, flooding and erosion, forcing emergency trail closures and harming vegetation and water quality.
Through a $21.1 million investment, Great American Outdoors Act funding will stabilize the riverbank along the towpath by clearing and rebuilding the banks, planting new native vegetation to stabilize the soil, and remediating the construction site and equipment access routes. The repairs will reduce annual operation and maintenance costs, saving park staff from further major rehabilitation work for the next 40 years. By reducing erosion, water quality and aquatic habitat will improve, and the trail’s many visitors will enjoy lasting benefits.
2. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Boasting the world’s longest known cave system, this famed park has been hosting underground tours for more than 200 years — yet park staff must now contend with serious maintenance needs affecting public access. Over time, some trail surfaces have deteriorated due to heavy use. Dust and lint from foot traffic stick to cave walls and promote algae growth, threatening the health of the cave. And stairway handrails, built with iron nearly a century ago, are significantly worn and pitted.
A $8.5 million investment from Great American Outdoor Act funding will repair and improve sections of the popular Frozen Niagara Route, New Entrance Route and Drapery Room so visitors will not trip on potholes, slip on steep sections of the walkway, or stray off the trail. Enhancements include creating a more even trail surface, replacing steep inclines with stairs, upgrading iron handrails with stainless steel, installing new benches and electrical conduits, and adding short retaining walls along the pathways to keep visitors on the trail and to protect cave walls. These improvements will help keep staff and visitors safe — as well as the cave itself.
3. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite is one of the most celebrated landscapes in the world. But at Tuolumne Meadows Campground, the largest and one of the most popular camping areas in the park, sites are dated and deteriorating, roads are potholed, restrooms are overcrowded, aging structures have been damaged from heavy snowfall, and facilities aren’t fully accessible to visitors with disabilities. The inefficient water and sewer systems are degrading and could cause a public health risk if conditions worsen.
Through a $21.5 million investment, Great American Outdoors Act funding will enable a major overhaul and modernization of the campground, allowing workers to repair roads, improve accessibility and enhance the amenities at each campsite, from parking pads and picnic tables to fire rings and food storage containers for bear protection. The campsites and access roads will be moved away from riverbanks to a new loop road. The eight restrooms — which serve around 1,200 visitors per day during periods of full occupancy — will be upgraded with new fixtures and floor plans and refurbished to meet federal accessibility standards, and two new restrooms will be added. The entire water system in the campground will be replaced.
Not only will the work improve the camping experience for more than 150,000 people annually, it will also significantly decrease costly emergency work and bring it into compliance with accessibility and public health standards.
4. Saratoga National Historical Park, New York
Saratoga’s most important and popular feature is a Revolutionary War battlefield where American troops forced the first-ever surrender of the British army.
But the current visitor experience features educational material that is more than 50 years old. At a battlefield park such as this, quality interpretation is critical to understanding the significance of the site. But many wayside descriptions are illegible or inaccurate; audio components haven’t worked for years or have been removed altogether. Along the 10-stop tour, parking and walkways do not meet current federal accessibility standards. Pathways with cracks and sinkholes pose tripping hazards and unsafe walking conditions.
Using $5 million in Great American Outdoors Act funding, the park will address these safety issues and modernize infrastructure. Workers will update and rehabilitate worn signage and provide universal accessibility on all routes, parking areas, trailheads, walkways and seating areas along the battlefield tour. Sixty durable new exhibits will offer audio and tactile components and improved interpretation to better connect all visitors with the importance of the site.
5. Acadia National Park, Maine
Hugging the coast of Maine and protecting the natural beauty of the highest rocky headlands along the Atlantic, Acadia has seen its visitation more than double in the last decade. But the park’s maintenance building, a cinderblock structure constructed in 1963, is essential for keeping the park running and is no longer sufficient to support the park’s spike in visitors. It was deemed structurally unsound more than a decade ago; its roof has deteriorated, and it does not meet accessibility, fire and other code requirements. The facility has a single restroom for more than 65 employees and is woefully undersized for the scale of Acadia’s current operations. Work areas don’t have adequate safety zones or proper ventilation, and drinking water is unsafe due to petroleum fuel contaminants.
Repairing the current facilities would cost more than replacing them. And a $19.9 million Great American Outdoors Act investment will fund a new maintenance complex with parking, roads, storage, utilities and septic. The funding will also allow workers to demolish the unsafe, undersized existing structures. The upgrade will improve workplace efficiency, decrease annual operating costs, protect equipment, address critical health and safety concerns, and improve universal access. The project will also reduce emergency maintenance, better protect employees and reduce fuel spill risks.
6. Alcatraz Island, California
Alcatraz Island is one of the most visited sites in San Francisco, and everyone must access the island via its wharf. Built in the middle of a cold bay with strong currents and harsh weather conditions, the wharf’s historic piles, beams and slabs are in fair to poor condition with varying degrees of damage. When it was built, nobody imagined that it would one day support millions of visitors. Builders also didn’t consider — in a region known for its earthquakes — that the wharf would need seismic strengthening.
Through a $36 million investment in Great American Outdoors Act funding, the National Park Service will carry out its first major rehabilitation of the wharf since it acquired the property in 1972. Workers will repair historic steel-cased concrete piles, beams and slabs; structural upgrades will improve the wharf’s resistance to earthquakes. The work will improve public safety, historic preservation efforts and the overall visitor experience.
7. Freedom Riders National Monument, Alabama
In 1961, a mob of white segregationists in Anniston, Alabama, attacked a bus of Freedom Riders — civil rights activists protesting racial discrimination in the South. Passengers sat aboard the bus as the mob slashed tires, broke windows and later fire-bombed the bus just outside of town. Newspapers printed images of the violence, spurring the federal government to ban segregation on interstate buses.
In 2017, President Obama designated the Greyhound bus depot where the initial attack occurred as the Freedom Riders National Monument. The depot — a small brick building on a commercial strip that hasn’t changed much since the 1960s — was open to visitors on weekends for a few months in 2021, but the park lacked the funding to continue staffing the site. There are currently no on-site visitor services. The nearby Chamber of Commerce offers an informational kiosk that looks like a bus. At the depot, visitors can peer in the windows, see a mural and listen to a five-minute audio clip from one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, but there is no park ranger to explain the importance of the events that took place and not much greenery or shade to protect visitors from the Alabama heat.
A $6.3 million investment of Great American Outdoors Act funding will rehabilitate the depot, restoring it to the way it looked in 1961. Next door, a separate building with a historic mural will be renovated to provide visitor services. In both buildings, workers will preserve historic features and rehabilitate mechanical, electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems. The funding will protect these historic buildings and finally make them accessible to the public, allowing visitors to talk to interpreters, purchase books, use the restroom, stamp their passport books and learn about the area’s history of segregation and activism.
8. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
This remote desert park preserves a wild stretch of the Sonoran Desert and the only large concentration of organ pipe cacti in the country. But visitation at the site — which is 85 miles from the closest interstate — is dependent on adequate water.
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Several of the park’s water mains date to the 1960s and are prone to frequent failure. The antiquated system has collapsed often, creating inefficient and unsustainable conditions. Failures have even left the park with temporary water shortages because water lines — not designed to last as long as they have been in use — have broken down underground and led to unexpected leaks. Without an automatic detection system, a line can leak for hours before the problem is repaired; in some instances, water in the tanks mostly drained out, causing shortages. Water supply problems could impact the park’s fire protection capabilities and pose a significant health risk to visitors and employees.
A $8.3 million Great American Outdoors Act investment will rehabilitate the park’s water systems, including new underground water distribution lines that meet drinking water and fire protection needs. A failing water supply well and two water storage tanks will be replaced, as will pipes, valves and related infrastructure. New remote monitoring capability will reduce water shortages caused by leaks. The replacement system will use more durable materials and components to operate more efficiently and reduce maintenance and repair costs. These improvements will help the park stay resilient in a changing climate and make conditions safer for employees and visitors for decades to come.
9. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia
This park preserves a rugged, 53-mile section of whitewater river flowing through the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia. But the park, first established in 1978, contains vacant properties in disrepair that have become an unnecessary maintenance burden. Most of these houses, outbuildings and shacks are now abandoned, failing, overgrown by vegetation, and hazardous to staff and visitors. Risks include collapsing floors and roofs, rodent-transmitted diseases, and fire hazards. If no action is taken, the condition of these buildings will only worsen.
Through a $1 million Great American Outdoors Act investment, workers will be able to demolish about 20 non-historic, deteriorating, unsound structures and restore native plants, returning these sites to their natural condition and making these additional areas available to visitors for recreation. Unnecessary roads associated with these sites will be removed. This project will remove hazards from the park and reduce operational costs, allowing staff to focus financial resources on higher priority projects that better serve the public.
About the author
John Garder Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations, Government Affairs
John Garder is Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations at NPCA. He is a budget analyst and researcher who advocates for more adequate funding for national parks to diverse audiences, including Congress, the White House, and the Department of the Interior.