Maintenance Isn’t Enough: Our National Parks Need the Land and Water Conservation Fund
By Alex Taurel, conservation program director at LCV and Arian Rubio, legislative associate at LCV
For years, Congress has underfunded our national parks and public lands; it’s become a chronic problem that compromises our ability to protect some of our country’s most treasured lands and waters for the next generation. Today, as America’s greatest parks program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), edges dangerously close to its September 30 expiration date, a second challenge facing our parks is gaining attention: the maintenance backlog for our national parks has reached roughly $11.6 billion.
Certainly, fixing failing roads, visitor centers, electric and water systems, and other infrastructure in our national parks is a serious challenge worthy of Congress’ attention. But addressing the parks maintenance backlog alone won’t fully secure the future of our national parks. LWCF is the key federal program that secures access to trails and purchases private inholdings to prevent inappropriate development within national park boundaries. After all, the construction of a private subdivision or strip mall that ruins a viewshed, or a private fence within a national park, can be just as damaging to the visitor experience as potholes in the park’s roads or shuttered facilities. In short, LWCF helps complete our national parks.
But that’s not all LWCF does. America’s premier conservation program also increases access to our public lands beyond the national parks by supporting national forests, wildlife refuges, and other magnificent landscapes. And it provides matching grants to states and localities to fund state and local parks, investing in close-to-home recreation in nearly every county in America, protecting our working forest and ranchland, and conserving wildlife, water quality, and historic battlefields. That’s why LWCF has broad bipartisan support in Congress.
In both the House and Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have cosponsored legislation to permanently reauthorize LWCF, and the Senate’s bill goes one step further by providing full and dedicated funding — an important step considering Congress has consistently shortchanged the program, appropriating well under the $900 million it’s supposed to receive each year. That under-funding by Congress over the years is a problem LWCF has in common with the national parks maintenance backlog. Indeed, it is what motivated supporters to develop the Restore Our Parks Act in the Senate and Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act in the House — the latest bills to address the national parks maintenance backlog, which also enjoy bipartisan support, just like LWCF.
It’s clear that if we want to continue to experience the parks and other public lands we cherish and that have made this country an exceptional place to call home, we need to address both LWCF and the maintenance backlog — these programs work in tandem and both need robust, dedicated funding.
Unfortunately, some in Washington are pitting these two issues against each other, saying that somehow we can only address one of these challenges and it must be the maintenance backlog. This false conflict was most visibly elevated in an amendment on the House floor led by Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ), which sought to fund the maintenance backlog by cutting millions from LWCF. Thankfully, a strong bipartisan majority voted NO, sending a firm message that we shouldn’t rob one parks priority to pay for another.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration — particularly Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — has tried to use the parks maintenance backlog as a reason to severely gut LWCF, attempting to force us to choose between funding park maintenance on the one hand, or funding new park protections and other benefits that LWCF provides to our country on the other. He and others argue that funding for LWCF can wait while we deal with the maintenance issue — completely ignoring the real, immediate threats to key lands that will be developed and lost forever if we fix the parks maintenance problem without dedicating funding for LWCF.
The fact is, Congress shouldn’t skip over the 50-year-old promise of LWCF to make new promises and should guarantee funding to address the parks maintenance backlog only as part of legislation that reauthorizes and guarantees dedicated funding to LWCF at the same time. That’s how we’ll properly secure the future of the national parks and meet the outdoor recreation needs of communities across the country.
Indeed, linking these two issues together has strong precedent and has been gaining momentum. In a press conference on the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act in July, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) explained that we can and must address both. “Directing revenue from energy production to support national parks and public land is not a new idea,” Grijalva said. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund originated that, this bipartisan model, more than 50 years ago. And the future of that program, as the deadline approaches, needs to be part of this discussion. Mandatory money for deferred maintenance should be paired with mandatory consideration and discussion of resources for LWCF.”
In 2016, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, negotiated an energy bill that both creates a new fund to finance high-priority infrastructure for parks and permanently reauthorizes LWCF. This compromise language shows that the senators understood that the parks maintenance issue and LWCF must move alongside each other. This Congress, Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID) is sponsoring legislation — H.R. 2863, the LAND Act — that would reauthorize LWCF and provide it with guaranteed funding while doing the same to address the maintenance backlog in the national parks and other public lands. That’s an approach worth considering. Tying together guaranteed funding for LWCF and the national parks maintenance backlog is the pathway Congress should pursue to protect and repair our parks.