Prioritizing our nation’s lands and resources

October 4, 2018

America is a beautiful place full of rugged mountains, rolling plains, and deep blue lakes. Americans have enjoyed these beautiful lands since our nation’s founding. In 1964 Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Act to help preserve many of these outdoor recreation resources. Unfortunately, this program has not been reformed in years, and our beautiful lands are suffering because of it.

LWCF started out with an admirable goal: setting aside a portion of revenue from federal oil and gas royalties to promote and preserve access to outdoor recreation opportunities on public lands. However, since its establishment, LWCF has been used more for federal land acquisition than access to or care for the land we manage.

For instance, the National Park Service, one of the largest federal land-holding agencies, has ballooned its inventory from 22.4 million acres in 1964 to more than 84 million acres. But as the size of our National Park System grew, the resources of the National Park Service were spread increasingly thin, predictably resulting in an estimated deferred maintenance backlog of $11.6 billion. Add in three of the other large federal land holders, the Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Wildlife Service under the Department of Interior, and the Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture, and the amount of deferred maintenance grew to $18.6 billion in fiscal year 2016.

Currently, LWCF does not have a clear way to fund upkeep or address the backlog of maintenance that often exists even before the government purchases the property. For some reason, funding the maintenance needs of our current federal lands tends to be controversial even though previous administrations have used the LWCF to finance maintenance.

The needs in the public lands system vary greatly from buildings to roads and trails. Not even our “crown jewels” are immune. For example, visitors to the Grand Canyon rely on water supplied from Roaring Springs, a natural spring located below the North Rim, via a 53-year-old pipeline that is over a decade past its designed life. The line breaks on average once a month, at times cutting off visitors and concession facilities from potable water, and more concerning, jeopardizing access to water in the event of a fire threatening the life and treasures in the park. The Park Service is finally looking at options to replace the line, but this single project represents more than $100 million in deferred maintenance, and it will still take years for it to be completed.

Congress has failed to make even the most incremental changes to the LWCF’s structure and processes. Instead, its periodic reauthorizations tend to get wrapped up in thousand-page-plus omnibus spending bills or continuing resolutions without any opportunity for reform.

There are options out there to fix the problem.

First and foremost, Congress should shift the focus from only land acquisition to also maintaining the lands we already have. This could be accomplished by requiring LWCF funds to go toward maintenance needs and directing the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to provide in their annual budget requests a list of high-priority maintenance needs they propose to fund with LWCF dollars.

Second, we should ensure that if the federal government uses LWCF funds to acquire a new property, sufficient LWCF funds are also provided to address any existing maintenance needs on the new property. Doing so will avoid adding any legacy liabilities to federal agencies’ already stretched maintenance budgets.

Third, we need to restore the LWCF’s original funding allocation formula. When the LWCF was created in 1964, it required 60 percent of the funds to go to states with 40 percent going to the federal government. Historically, however, only 25 percent of the funds have gone to the states while over 60 percent have been used to fund federal land acquisitions. Restoring the original funding allocation and redirecting federal LWCF dollars toward maintenance instead of land acquisition would more closely align the goals of the LWCF with our present needs.

Only in Washington is it controversial to use a portion of a fund to take care of existing public lands instead of just blindly buying more land year after year. National parks should be preserved for the future, not ignored into disrepair.

With so many beautiful lands and cultural resources to enjoy, Americans do not have to go far to escape from life’s everyday stresses. However, for future generations to be afforded the same experiences, we must face our responsibility to care for these resources so they will be worth visiting for many years to come.

Lankford is the junior senator for Oklahoma. Lee is the junior senator from Utah and is the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining.

Originally published by The Hill