Parks pro­gram on the rocks

Congress could keep Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund alive, but it hasn’t

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Led­yard King

WASH­ING­TON – The 54-year-old fed­eral lands pur­chase pro­gram that’s helped pro­tect Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park, the Ap­palachian Trail and Cen­tral Park in New York City is on the verge of dis­ap­pear­ing.

The Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund ac­tu­ally ex­pired in Septem­ber when Congress failed to reau­tho­rize a pro­gram that has steered bil­lions from fed­eral off­shore oil and gas leas­ing rev­enues to con­serve mil­lions of acres in more than 40,000 parks, mon­u­ments and his­toric sites.

An at­tempt to re­vive it ear­lier this month as part of the con­gres­sional bud­get ne­go­ti­a­tions died de­spite broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port. Now with a gov­ern­ment shut­down en­ter­ing its sec­ond week with no com­pro­mise in sight, it’s un­clear when – or whether – the LWCF will be res­ur­rected.

“Congress’ fail­ure to act on the Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund this year is un­ac­cept­able and shows just how

bro­ken this place is,” Sen. Michael Ben­net, D-Colo., said last week.

The pro­gram has be­come the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s pri­mary piggy bank to buy land and wa­ter for con­ser­va­tion and out­door recre­ation across the coun­try. Of­ten, the money is used to buy pri­vate tracts nes­tled within the con­fines of pub­lic lands.

Over its five decades, the LWCF has dis­pensed some $16 bil­lion to states and fed­eral agen­cies for pur­chas­ing mil­lions of acres in na­tional parks, wildlife refuges, forests, his­toric and scenic trails, wild and scenic river cor­ri­dors, na­tional bat­tle­fields and mon­u­ments, and other fed­eral lands. The fund also has been used to buy land as a wild­fire buf­fer be­tween pub­lic forests and vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties.

But crit­ics, led by Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee, say a pro­gram cre­ated pri­mar­ily to help states de­velop recre­ational plan­ning and fa­cil­i­ties has “drifted far from its orig­i­nal in­tent.”

“The last thing Congress should do is au­tho­rize more money for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ac­quire more lands that it can’t take care of,” Lee wrote in a re­cent col­umn. “If we truly want greater ac­cess to and preser­va­tion of our na­tion’s beau­ti­ful lands and wa­ters, we need to re­think LCWF in the long term.”

Lee wants to block the pro­gram from be­ing able to buy more land. In­stead, he said, a por­tion should be re­quired to go to­ward ad­dress­ing main­te­nance back­log projects at na­tional parks.

De­spite Lee’s con­cerns, the pro­gram has broad sup­port. En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists want wildlife ar­eas ex­panded; out­door en­thu­si­asts want larger ex­panses to hunt, fish and hike; preser­va­tion groups want more bat­tle­fields saved, and ur­ban plan­ners want more green space in their cities.

And there’s an eco­nomic ben­e­fit, sup­port­ers say.

“It’s not just the hunters, the hik­ers and the an­glers who are count­ing (on) LWCF,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said ear­lier this year. “It’s the cafe own­ers, the ho­tel man­agers, the fly shop work­ers, the out­fit­ters and the guides who are de­mand­ing a long-term so­lu­tion.”

Sup­port­ers are seek­ing per­ma­nent au­tho­riza­tion as op­posed to the tem­po­rary ex­ten­sions Congress has ap­proved over the years.

Not only would a per­ma­nent pro­gram avoid the prospect of fu­ture bat­tles in Congress but it would also make it eas­ier to fund the pro­gram at its fully in­tended level of at least $900 mil­lion per year. Law­mak­ers have ap­pro­pri­ated far less than that most years, in­clud­ing sev­eral when no funds were al­lo­cated.

Ad­vo­cates hope that changes when Democrats take over the House Jan. 3.

“We’re count­ing on the 116th Congress to stop sid­ing with Trump’s at­tacks on our pub­lic lands and fix this right away,” said Alex Tau­rel, con­ser­va­tion pro­gram direc­tor for the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers.

MICHAEL QUINN/NA­TIONAL PARK SER­VICE

The orig­i­nal Grandview Trail at Grand Canyon Na­tional Park was cre­ated to con­nect the rim with the cop­per mines on Horse­shoe Mesa. The trail even­tu­ally pro­vided ac­cess to more tourists than min­ers.

MARK WIL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, op­poses reau­tho­riza­tion of the fund with­out ma­jor changes.

AP

Robert Weiss of Tewks­bury, Mass., pho­to­graphs his brother-in-law, Matthew Ferri, of Dra­cut, Mass., and his wife, An­drea Weiss, on the Ap­palachian Trail.

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