Editorial: Summit in sight for two parks funding bills

By:  One secures full funding for parks grants. The other would fix a maintenance backlog at national parks.
Source: The Everett Herald

After years of uphill treks, legislation that seeks to secure long-term funding for parks and public lands in the United States may have the summit within sight.

Last week, the U.S. Senate’s committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted its approval for two pieces of legislation: one is key to securing full and permanent funding for a grant program for national, state and local parks and natural preserves; and a second would, after years of neglect, begin to address an estimated $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance throughout the National Parks System.

Both bills can now move to the Senate floor for adoption, then to the House where similar legislation already has significant support, including among the state’s Congressional delegation. A final push of support from outdoor enthusiasts and others who treasure parks and public lands can help both bills to passage.

Land and Water Conservation Fund: The first would authorize full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, legislation that was originally sponsored by Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in 1964. Since its creation the fund has provided financial support and matching grants for national and state public lands acquisitions and development of parks and recreation facilities.

Importantly, it’s not taxpayer money being allocated through the program; all funding comes from royalties paid by the oil and gas industry for off-shore drilling leases. Essentially, natural resources are used to support American’s enjoyment of its natural resources.

But in recent years, the program’s continued existence wasn’t even certain. Republican opposition led to its failed reauthorization in 2015, even after it marked its 50th anniversary. Late that year it would get a three-year reprieve, and this year, permanent authorization. But allocation of funds has been spotty and has depended on annual appropriations. The original legislation intended an annual appropriation of $900 million each year, but typically it received only a fraction of that amount; $487 million in 2018, for example.

The bill that passed out of committee last week, co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, will provide for the permanent and full funding — $900 million — that can provide a significant boost to parks and public land projects throughout the nation. Since inception, the fund has provided more than $714 million in Washington state for projects, much of it matched by local and state funding for local, state and national parks, providing protection of forests and water and air quality, wildlife habitat and recreational access.

In Snohomish County, the LWCF has provided more than $5.1 million for 45 projects. Ten projects in Island County have received $1.1 million from the program, including Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

Restore Our Parks Act: The second piece of legislation, taking a cue from the LWCF, would allocate up to $1.3 billion in annual royalty payments from all energy development — including oil, gas, coal and alternative or renewable energy development on federal land — for a five-year period, up to $6.5 billion.

That amount would address more than half of the $12 billion backlog in maintenance at national parks. About half of the deferred maintenance is a lack of upkeep of highways, roads, bridges and related infrastructure, but the Senate bill mandates that 65 percent of each year’s allocation would go toward nontransportation projects, such as historic structures, camping, educational and recreational facilities, utilities and other needs related to the enjoyment of park visitors.

In Washington state alone, the deferred maintenance includes projects worth more than $427 million, including $186 million at Mount Rainier National Park, $22.5 million at North Cascades National Park and $4.2 million at Ebey’s Landing.

Long identified as “America’s best idea,” the national parks have suffered from decades of funding neglect by Congress, yet have remained a resource that is treasured — and heavily visited — by Americans.

More than 8 million people visited national parks in this state in 2018, spending $506 million in the gateway communities outside the parks. That spending supported 5,830 jobs and added $670 million to the state economy. Nationwide, more than 318 million visited U.S. national parks, spent $20 billion in local communities, supported 329,000 jobs and generated $40 billion for the U.S. economy.

Not surprisingly, public support is strong for parks and for their financial support. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released a poll that showed 82 percent of Americans supported the funding outlined in the Senate bill. Similarly, a poll commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation showed support from 74 percent of Americans for the LWCF.

Now closer than ever to resolution, both bills need to draw on that public support to pass convincingly on the floors of the Senate and House and persuade the president to use his Sharpie for two pieces of legislation that have the backing of large majorities of Americans.