- - Tuesday, August 11, 2020

As a young girl growing up in Indiana I spent as much time outdoors as I could and I loved to go fishing with my Uncle Joe. I also cherished my summers in Mississippi, where I spent countless hours with my grandfather, who hunted everything.

From an early age, they taught me the importance of the outdoors and all it offers. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. It’s why as director of the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, I landed a dream job and it’s why I realize that the enactment of the Great American Outdoors Act represents one of the greatest conservation achievements in our nation’s history.

It had been languishing in Congress even though it has enjoyed bipartisan support since its introduction, but is today a reality thanks to the steadfast leadership of President Trump and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. It finally provides permanent funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million per year, monies derived from royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf.

The funding will be used to conserve public lands and support outdoor recreation across the country. It will also use these same oil and gas royalties to provide $9.5 billion over the next five years to at long last tackle the nearly $1.4 billion in deferred maintenance projects that we have all lived with for years.

Nationwide, the Fish and Wildlife Service alone is responsible for more than $46 billion in constructed real property assets that include more than 25,000 structures as well as nearly 14,000 roads, bridges and dams, and maintain them will make access and enjoyment of the outdoors far easier than it has been. The Great American Outdoors Act could not have come at a better time for the country.

As we persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has found refuge in nature, and I hope that even after we conquer this pandemic the public will get out more to enjoy our National Wildlife Refuges, which have remained open during this difficult time. 

Founded in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System is a diverse network of lands and waters with nearly 94 million acres dedicated to conserving America’s fish and wildlife resources. It serves a purpose distinct from other public lands — focusing on wildlife conservation and wildlife-dependent recreation. Also founded in 1871, the Commission of Fish and Fisheries, which today encompasses 70 National Fish Hatcheries across the nation, work with states and tribes to provide fish for recreational and conservation purposes, and provide refuge for endangered species. The hatcheries also provide outdoor opportunities from fishing events and tours to numerous education activities.

President Trump understands that our American heritage — hunting and fishing — as well as other wildlife-dependent recreational activities like hiking, birdwatching, nature photography and environmental education — bring families together, creating jobs and supporting local communities.

The love I developed for the outdoors as a young girl is as important to me today as it was back in Mississippi, and fortunately there are several national wildlife refuges near Washington, D.C., Patuxent Research Refuge and Occoquan Bay, Featherstone, Eastern Neck and the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, which was the first refuge established specifically for the protection of our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle.

These four urban refuges near D.C. cover about 3,500 acres and offer a multitude of opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking and bicycling along a network of trails that connect to many federal, state and local parks. Visiting them makes the D.C. metropolitan area all the more enjoyable.

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service hosted more than 50 million visitors and their spending generated more than $3 billion in sales in local economies, supporting more than 41,000 jobs.

Our National Wildlife Refuge System is all about healthy lands and waters, as well as infrastructure to keep it accessible and safe. The funding made available by the Great American Outdoors Act will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire lands that increase the effectiveness of refuges in conserving a multitude of species of fish, wildlife, migratory birds and plants. Strategic land acquisition will also help us to provide more public access.

The bottom line is that the president has helped to preserve part of our nation’s and my family’s heritage. His leadership and commitment to our natural resources will ensure that the American public can safely visit their public lands and enjoy their natural heritage for generations to come.

My grandfather and my Uncle Joe would be proud.

• Aurelia Skipwith is the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was first nominated to the position by President Trump in 2018 and is the first African-American to hold that position.

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