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 http://www.preservationaction.org)
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