These days, Interior spends over $200 million a year buying land. That raises the perennial question: how much is enough? The government already owns 635 million acres, almost a third of the United States. That includes 250 million acres of BLM, 193 million acres of national forests, 84 million acres of national parks, and 150 million acres of wildlife refuges. And as the maintenance backlog demonstrates, the government cannot begin to manage it all. 

Commentary by Greg Walcher

Maintain the Old or Buy the New?

When your car has a flat tire, a dead battery, and needs an oil change, you have two choices. Take care of these tiresome but routine tasks, or buy a new car. Few of us can afford the latter option, and even if we did, new cars need maintenance, too. Otherwise we would just have a junk yard filled with inoperable cars. That truth applies to all machines, but also to roads, bridges, campgrounds, reservoirs, and other property.

During my tenure at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, I noticed a recurring conference for State Parks officials, so I decided to go check it out. It was the annual meeting of NASORLO, the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers. That is, state officials whose job includes administering a federal program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The four-day conference’s main purpose was (and is every year) to ensure that all the states sing from the same hymnal in lobbying Congress and the Interior Department for shares of the money.

Created in 1965, LWCF was designed to use revenue from the depletion of one natural resource (offshore oil and gas) to support the conservation of another (land and water). Royalties paid by oil and gas companies producing from the Outer Continental Shelf (this year $900 million) go into the fund, which was dedicated to maintaining and preserving national parks, rivers and lakes, national forests, and wildlife refuges, as well as matching grants for state and local park and recreation projects.

Like most federal programs, it has morphed, today providing grants in many other outdoor recreation categories. It has also become the primary tool for land acquisition, both at Interior and in the States. Congress has frequently broken the original promise and diverted some of the funds elsewhere, despite an unfathomable maintenance backlog on public lands. It is now estimated that national parks face a backlog of $30 billion, and states say they now need $27 billion from LWCF. To put that in perspective, the 46,000 state and local grants awarded throughout the program’s 52-year history total only about $7 billion.

Congress is set to reauthorize the program again later this year, but even so, a fund generating less than a billion annually can hardly keep up with such immense maintenance needs. One reason is that far more of the funds are used to acquire new land and easements than to maintain existing facilities. After all, buying a new car is always more glamorous than changing the oil.

Outdoor recreation is a $28 billion industry in my home state of Colorado, where LWCF has invested over $268 million in the State. Such investments are important to many other States – several of which have even larger recreational industries – so no wonder a major lobbying industry has evolved to keep the money flowing. It includes not only NASORLO, but also the LWCF Coalition, National Association of State Park Directors, American Recreation Coalition, National Park Trust, National Recreation and Park Association, Outdoor Industry Association, Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals, and many more.

These days, Interior spends over $200 million a year buying land. That raises the perennial question: how much is enough? The government already owns 635 million acres, almost a third of the United States. That includes 250 million acres of BLM, 193 million acres of national forests, 84 million acres of national parks, and 150 million acres of wildlife refuges. And as the maintenance backlog demonstrates, the government cannot begin to manage it all. Reports estimate that nine of every ten miles of park roads are crumbling, along with unsafe bridges, and 6,000 miles of trails needing repairs. And over 115 million acres of catastrophic fires over the last 20 years (2 million of them in Colorado) attest to the utter failure of national forest management.

Perhaps that is why the Administration has proposed slashing LWCF acquisitions by 95 percent in its 2019 budget request, while increasing state grants. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a steadfast supporter of the LWCF concept, but this is about land acquisition, not conservation.

Reaction from the LWCF lobby was swift, and predictable. One Senator said reducing acquisitions would “wipe out” the program, and the entire outdoor recreation industry. He called it “an assault on our national parks.” Another was even more hyperbolic: “It’s like the President has been watching too many President’s Day sale ads, and now he thinks everything must go.”

Calm down; nobody is selling anything. But they may be asking the glaring question – shouldn’t we maintain what we already have, before buying more?

An edited version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel February 16, 2018.


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