Over the last 25 years, the size of the federal estate has shrunk by 18 million acres, an area bigger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware combined.
When federal agencies do acquire land, it is nearly always to fill in missing patches—for the last five years more than 99 percent of federal land acquisitions have occurred within existing tracts, lowering management costs and increasing public access.
And yet, influential lawmakers like Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) are pursuing harmful policies under the erroneous assumption that federal land agencies are snatching up private land, expanding their footprints, and letting the vast estate sit in disrepair. This mistaken line of thinking is, unfortunately, being used to justify attempts to take down one of the most popular conservation programs in U.S. history: the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The language used to describe LWCF is nearly always glowing. It’s a “landmark law,” the “nation’s primary land conservation law,” used to make “critical investments” in our communities and natural heritage.
The praise is well warranted. For fifty years, LWCF has directed non-tax revenue from offshore drilling into countless conservation projects nationwide, from wilderness areas to community centers. For states, the program is a vital source of funding for open spaces of all kinds—seventy-five percent of the funding for state and local projects has gone toward small, “close-to-home recreation opportunities that are readily accessible to America’s youth, senior citizens and the physically or mentally challenged.” Key to the success of LWCF has been its flexibility. For states and counties, the program funds vital community spaces, including 40,000 local parks, baseball diamonds and open spaces.
If you’re planning a trip to our public lands this summer, there’s a good chance they have benefited from LWCF funding. It’s no surprise that, as a result, LWCF is incredibly popular. Fully three-quarters of voters in Western states support the program and its continuation.
But despite this half-century of success, LWCF is slated to expire on September 30, 2015. And instead of keeping faith with the original intent of the program by reauthorizing and fully funding it, a cohort of politicians and interest groups is trying to raid its coffers in order to pay for national park maintenance—a problem of Congress’s making, which Congress has the power to solve through other means.
Over the last decade, the National Park Service has fallen victim to harmful budget cuts, which has led to an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog. In total, Congress has cut the agency’s budget by nearly 7 percent in just the last five years. Roads need repaving. Facilities need repairs. But to plunder LWCF to pay for the national park maintenance backlog would be to unnecessarily sacrifice a vital and popular program to cover up for Congress’s inaction.
Instead, here are two straightforward ways to fund the national park maintenance backlog without raiding LWCF:
- Department of the Interior Budget: The agency’s 2016 budget request addresses the National Park Service backlog specifically. According to Secretary Sally Jewell, the budget would “clear up the maintenance backlog on our facilities on our highest priorities assets” within ten years. Senator Murkowski, as Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, is in an ideal position to help this budget pass. But instead, she supports poaching funds from LWCF.
- Department of Transportation Budget: Half of the $11.5 billion parks backlog is transportation-related, and the Interior Department is dependent on the Department of Transportation to address these costs. As the 2016 DOT budget is debated, Congress can choose to fund the backlog through the Federal Lands Transportation Program, which typically amounts to $300 million each year.
The national park maintenance backlog and LWCF’s funding are two key programs that support America’s long traditions of recreation and conservation, but sacrificing one for the sake of the other is a shortsighted way to approach fixable budgetary shortfalls. With less than five months left until the expiration of LWCF, debate should focus on reauthorizing and fully funding the program, not how to plunder it.