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While we were not watching…

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2020
Bureau of Land Management File Photograph

Understandably the country and the world’s attention has been riveted on the inexorable spread of the Coronavirus, but what else might be happening when our attention is distracted?

As is so often the case, the United States’ National Parks is one topic that has attracted public scrutiny.  As reported in a recent podcast (March 22, 2020) by the National Parks Traveler,  the current administration’s management of U.S. parks seems emblematic of the overall federal government response to this national emergency.

Even before the pandemic, the long-standing authority of park superintendents to decide when to open and close facilities had been rescinded. Park managers were forced to submit any closure requests up through a multilevel chain of command. Now, confronted by this crisis, Dr. John Freemuth, a former park ranger and Environment and Public Lands Chair at Boise State University, opined that the response of the NPS and other land managing agencies appears to be driven by a sloppy “ ad hoc, unfocused centralized policy” not reflective of conditions on the ground.

The administration’s widely touted announcement that all national Parks would now be free has only made things worse. All experts on the podcast agreed that giving superintendents the authority on how to manage parks was critical. More recently, the Department of Interior has backed off on some of the restrictions on closing facilities and even whole parks. However, the issue is still uncertain as this developing story (March 26, 2020) about the status Grand Canyon National Park illustrates.

Also – no surprise – while all this has been going on, the Wall Street Journal (March 25 2020) reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to waive compliance requirements and deadlines for a range of industries including oil refineries, water utilities, and sewer plants. A close reading of the article reveals that the waivers revolve around the current requirements for industries to switch to less polluting fuel oil, which is required in the summer season. Waivers according to the American Petroleum Institute will provide temporary relief to the industry as consumer demand for oil plummets. 

However, these are just a few of the current threats to the environment and public lands. Of even bigger concern are ongoing efforts to dismantle well established conservation programs. These include:

  • Reduction in the size of National Monuments — In 2017, the administration launched a review of 21 national monuments. The most publicized outcome of which has been the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument. Within the borders of this monument alone, the potential losses of cultural and natural resources are tremendous. In addition, the landscapes of this monument and many others have ongoing cultural importance for many Indigenous peoples in the region. The issue of the reducing the monument boundaries is still in active litigation. 
  • Abolishing the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives – The administration has withdrawn funding for this innovative and successful conservation program in direct contradiction of instructions from Congress. The program was a comprehensive strategy to tackle big-picture issues affecting huge swaths of the US, such as climate change, flooding and species extinction. Most are now on indefinite hiatus or have been dissolved.    
  • Savage Budget cuts for all conservation programs- The most recent Administration’s budget includes a roughly $1.4 billion cut to the Department of Interior and far deeper cuts to the Department of Agriculture: combined the two agencies own and manage more than 700 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West.  

What to do?

  1. Just stop it.  One idea that is gaining traction is a call to  suspend ongoing comment periods and leave all regulations in place, halt oil and gas lease sales, and delay new policy proposals in the current emergency.  Another obvious step is for the Department of the Interior (DOI) to close  national parks for the protection of park employees and visitors. The Department of Interior cannot continue to operate under a “business as usual” mentality in regards to these other issues.

2. Support Organizations that Care. Let me suggest some of my favorite places to find like-minded people with powerful ideas. And while you at it, consider making a donation.

  • The National Parks Traveler  An editorially independent nonprofit media organization, its online site and newsletter are dedicated to covering primarily US National Park issues on a daily basis. A good source for up to the minute news on parks and protected areas.

  • The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks    This small but, high profile organization that represents over 1,800 current, former and retired park staff and has an effective record of advocating for National Parks issues. In last three years they have tackled high profile issues from energy extraction impacts to protecting park visitors and staff. 
  •  Network for Large Landscape Conservation  A broad based coalition established to advance the practice of large landscape conservation across all sectors and geographies. Its strength is in the diversity of individuals and organizations that are actively engaged and who are creating a collective body of knowledge, experience, and commitment to advancing conservation at the landscape scale. 
  • Preservation Action  A small organization, but a big advocate for historic preservation issues. The source for the latest information on legislation and policy matters in the field of cultural resources.    
  • US ICOMOS  Maintaining our connections to global heritage is more important than ever. US/ICOMOS opens the door to international best practices through knowledge exchanges, scientific committees, symposiums, and the organization’s well-respected international exchange program for students and young professionals. 

3) Strategize for the Future. Let’s use this challenging time to take stock and respond to the dismantling of Federal programs and partnerships that support landscape work by developing a more unified platform and a bigger vision. We should craft an agenda that merges the approaches of nature and culture conservation not just for protected lands, but for all valued places. A strategy that engages public and private partners and incorporates our lived-in landscapes with the goal of achieving conservation at scale. We can dream, can’t we?

N.B. The Living Landscape Observer is not the only one to point out this unraveling environmental catastrophe. Writing in Outside Online  Wes Siler catalogs other actions such as selling oil and gas leases at rock bottom prices, shutting down federal advisory committees and allowing violations of the Migratory Bird Act.


Observations on the Land and Water Conservation Fund

By Guest Observer January 30, 2014

By Tom Wolfe

For Living Landscape Observers who may have lost faith in our elected federal representatives allow me to offer you some insights for the New Year. 2014 has begun with a significant legislative accomplishment in Congress. That’s right, they actually got something done in Washington, DC!

The second session of the 113th Congress began in early January with unfinished business from last year. There was no federal budget passed in time for the beginning of fiscal year 2014, last September. Finally, during the week of January 13, the House and Senate succeeded in resolving their differences and a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill was passed.

The bill became law when the president signed it on January 17 and as a result, funding for and operations of the federal government are insured through the current fiscal year which ends on September 30. Clearly, Congress heard the message of a multitude of Americans who were upset about the October government shutdown which included many inconveniences including the closure of all 401 national parks. After a yearlong battle, Congress has finally decided how to prioritize and spend our hard earned tax dollars. The omnibus bill, H.R. 3547, included a combined package of twelve appropriations bills, which are normally considered individually. The result was a massive bill over 1,500 pages in length which is the yearly spending plan for the federal government.

The agency, most critical to us as outdoor enthusiasts and serves as the overseer of nearly 650 million acres (almost 30 percent of the land area of the United States) the Department of the Interior (DOI), received $ 30.1 billion. This is an increase of $300 million from FY ’13. Included with DOI are funds for the National Park Service which received $2.6 billion. That is an increase of 28.5 million from last year. (For those interested in the Historic Preservation budget visit Preservation Action

Within the Park Service budget is a very important program that helps to permanently protect land and water for all Americans, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Signed into law on September 3, 1964, “the purposes of this Act are to assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility to…present and future generations…such quality and quantity of outdoor recreation resources as may be available and are necessary and desirable for the individual active participation in such recreation and strengthen the health and vitality of the Citizens of the United States.”

Further, “the Act established a funding source for both federal acquisition of park and recreation lands and matching grants to state and local governments for recreation planning, acquisition and development. It set requirements for state planning and provided a formula for allocating annual LWCF appropriations to the States and Territories.”

Since 1965, LWCF has helped to protect nearly 5 million acres of public lands including; the Appalachian Trail and the Grand Canyon through its federal land protection program. And its state assistance program has provided over 3.5 billion in grant funding which has been spent in every county in America.

Thousands of state and community recreation areas, parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, trails, and ball fields have benefited from these state assistance grants. The grants provide a 50% local funding match boosting the total dollar investment to over 7 billion over the history of the program. Based on a formula that provides a minimum share to all states and additional funds based on size, the state assistance program provides much needed support across the country.

The next round of state funds will be apportioned later in the year. In 2013 Vermont received the minimum amount of any state – $349,345 and California received the largest amount – $3,414,784. In the newly passed bill LWCF received $306 million. Of that total, only $42 million will go toward state assistant grants. Unfortunately, this reflects a trend of insufficient funding for the states fueled by a misconception in Congress that LWCF is nothing but a program used to expand the portfolio of federally owned lands. In its most recent State and Local Assistance Program Annual Report, the National Park Service shows $18 billion in unmet needs (the yearly sum of unfunded outdoor recreation projects submitted for LWCF grants) from the states.

While the LWCF was not meant to fulfill all the needs of the states for outdoor recreation funding sadly, it falls well short of its intended contribution. As prescribed by language of the Act that was passed in 1964, the LWCF expires in September 2015. Therefore, it must be renewed in order to continue. Consequently, 2014 will be a critical year to demonstrate support for LWCF.

Chances are that the park, recreation area, swimming pool, baseball field, soccer field or playground near you has received an LWCF state grant matched with local funding. Each and every one of us needs to contact our senators and congressmen to deliver a simple message: America needs to keep the Land and Water Conservation Fund and increased funding should be directed to the state assistance fund. We all benefit now and we owe it to future generations to preserve places to hike, play, swim, walk a dog or simply observe nature.

Tom Wolfe, is a Washington, DC based public affairs consultant and advocate for parks and recreation. He is a former chief of congressional and legislative affairs for the National Park Service and also served as the federal representative for state parks. Tom can be reached here


Another Close Call for Heritage Areas

By Brenda Barrett March 28, 2013

Just when you think things cannot get more dire for the National Heritage Areas, the program found itself fighting a rearguard action as the Senate was poised to pass the FY 2013 budget – well, actually it was a continuing resolution (CR), which is what passes for a budget in Washington these days.

On Thursday March 17, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) proposed a amendment to strip away half of the funding for National Heritage Areas ($8.1 Million) and redirect much of the money to reinstate tours of the White House and for other national park service activities  His amendment would have also nixed a one-year extension for twelve areas that had reached the end of their authorization. And just to show that he was really serious, Coburn backed himself up with talking points and a press release to Fox News listing “wasteful heritage area projects’.  So all weekend, the NHAs scrambled their delegations on both sides of the aisle and on Wednesday March 20th the Senate defeated the amendment by a vote of 45-55. The Senate sent the CR back to the House minus the language harmful to NHAs. It passed the next day. Phew!

The short history of the National Heritage Area (NHA) program has been full of last minute saves. The Living Landscape Observer has posted several times on the brinksmanship that has characterized the life of heritage area leaders. See this piece from last year for example.

What is truly hard to swallow about this most recent attack was that Coburn’s most damming indictment of the program came directly from the mouth of the current administration. The Department of the Interior FY 2013 budget request  recommended an $8.1 reduction from the  $17 appropriated for the program in FY 2012.  The rationale stated in the budget document was:  The National Park Service is proposing to reduce funding for the National Heritage Areas program for FY 2013 by roughly 50 percent. This proposed reduction would allow the Park Service to focus its available resources on sustaining park operations and other critical community partnership programs. Managers of NHAs continue to rely heavily on Federal funding, although the program was not intended as a pathway to long-term Federal funding for individual Heritage Areas” Ouch!

Over the past year the National Park Service’s Call to Action identified NHAs as a promising strategy. Director John Jarvis has spoken out strongly in favor of the approach and has issued a policy directive that reinforced the importance of these partnerships.  The agency is in favor of legislation to establish a NHA program.  The next big step — send a new message on the value of NHA to Congress with the right price tag – how about $49 million in FY 2014?

Seriously, in these times of high budget drama and shrinking resources, the NPS should take advantage of partners like the NHAs with such proven and effective advocacy skills. What if everybody got on the same page?  Then we could start building the kind heritage partnerships that will sustain the places we care about not just for one congressional cycle, but for the next generation.


Federal Funding – How are we doing?

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2012

When all was said and done, federal funding for landscape scale cultural and natural resource conservation programs fared relatively well in the recent 2012 budget showdown in Washington, D.C.

Historic Preservation funding for state and tribal historic preservation offices saw a slight increase to $47 million and $9 million respectively. Unfortunately, both Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America, two federal historic preservation grant programs, were left unfunded for a second year.

National Heritage Areas managed to almost double the administration’s request, which translated into essentially flat funding of $17.4 million for forty-nine areas across the country. The Land and Water Conservation Fund also received an increase from the 2011 budget with $186.7 million for the Federal side and $45 million for the State grants. However, these numbers did not even come close to the full funding of $900 million for the Land and Water Fund proposed by the Obama administration.

There was good news for some other large landscape initiatives as funding for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways program was restored at almost $2 million dollars and the Everglades received $142 million in restoration dollars.

But, like every year, we are now starting the process all over again with the 2013 budget. In general, the administration is proposing to hold programs at existing funding levels, which may be as good as it gets in this climate. One disappointment was the proposal to again cut 50% of the funds for National Heritage Areas. While in the past, Congress always has restored funding for the program, the Observer is concerned that these landscape scale partners must spend so much time and effort running to stay in the same place.

For more on the ins and outs of the budget process information visit Preservation Action or the Land and Water Coalition.