We hope the articles you read in Parks & Recreation are thought-provoking and engaging, and we want to hear your opinions on what you read in these pages. Through social media posts, website comments, emails to staff or posts on NRPA Connect, let us know how the magazine’s articles apply to your job and your agency.
[Ed. Note: In our May issue, Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (UT-1), of the House Natural Resources Committee, penned an article titled, “The Case for LWCF Reform,” In response, the committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ-3), provided an op-ed in our June issue. This month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) adds her thoughts to the discussion. All messages have been lightly edited for grammar and punctuation but are otherwise published as submitted by the legislators.
As we approach LWCF’s scheduled expiration on September 30th, the debate on the reauthorization and possible reform of the law is intensifying. NRPA’s position regarding LWCF is clear in our unwavering support for a permanent and fully funded LWCF with no less than 40 percent guaranteed funding for the State Assistance Program. Learn more about the LWCF State Assistance Program, and how to get involved in the reauthorization effort.]
As the September 30 expiration date for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) approaches, debate continues to intensify about what a reauthorization should look like. The LWCF has played a key role in creating our nation’s world-class state and federal outdoor recreation system. Almost everyone, including me, agrees that we need to reauthorize the LWCF, but some of us also believe we need to modernize this 50-year-old law to align with evolving viewpoints and the changing conditions we face in the 21st century.
When we talk about the LWCF these days, it is almost exclusively about federal land acquisition. Many seem to have forgotten the pivotal role that states serve in conservation and outdoor recreation under the Act. From the start, the Act recognized that states were the linchpin and targeted 60 percent of all appropriated LWCF monies to the state grant program, or “stateside program,” for recreation planning, land acquisition and development.
In 1976, the 60 percent requirement was removed from the statute. Since then, the stateside program has been eroded to the point that it received only an average of 12 percent of appropriated LWCF funds per year during the past decade. Federal agencies received the remaining 88 percent. Half of the federal funds were used for federal land acquisitions, and 38 percent went toward “other purposes,” a new category that appeared for the first time in 1998.
The demise to the stateside program has occurred even though states have been strong advocates of public access and recreation and have worked with our sportsmen and women to provide hunting, fishing and recreational shooting opportunities on federal and state lands.
The lack of funding for the stateside program also ignores an area where states can — and are — doing a great job. Alaska State Parks is the largest state parks system in the country and is Alaska’s largest provider of recreation facilities, such as public campgrounds. Alaska State Parks also boasts twice the visitation when compared to Alaska’s national parks — despite the fact that national parks contain 49 million more acres than state parks. Who is contributing more toward outdoor recreation in Alaska?
Instead of leaving them on the sidelines, I believe states need to be given the opportunity to lead. States are in the best position to understand and accommodate the needs of their citizens. In fact, in some instances, state and local governments are almost the exclusive providers of outdoor recreation opportunities. In 13 states around the country, the federal government owns less than 2 percent of the total acreage of the state.
There is also a financial benefit to the stateside program. It requires a 50/50 match, and in some cases, the state exceeds this requirement. Every federal dollar is highly leveraged. These dollars go to outdoor recreation facilities and resources near where people actually live — from local city playgrounds and baseball fields to local fishing holes and state parks that rival some of our national parks.
Some have claimed that most of the funds directed to “other purposes” can be categorized as state grants and that the states really are getting their fair share. Many states take exception to this claim. These “other purposes” grants target very specific types of projects, do not go through the state’s prioritization and planning process that must be completed every five years, and do not target the state’s most pressing recreational needs.
I am also skeptical of the high level of federal land acquisition. Since enactment of the LWCF Act in 1964, almost 109 million acres have been added to the four federal land management agencies, bringing the total federal estate to approximately 640 million acres or close to 30 percent of the United States. The federal government owns about half of all lands in the West, and as much as 81 percent of some states’ total acreage. Almost 63 percent of my home state of Alaska is in federal ownership.
When so much land is held by the federal government, it is extremely difficult for states to develop resources and promote a healthy economy. Some individual counties face even worse circumstances, with up to 98 percent of their lands tied up by the federal government. This high level of federal ownership erodes the county’s tax base and leaves them struggling to pay for schools, roads, law enforcement and emergency services.
It also raises a timely question: Does the federal government really need more land?
The federal government already has trouble taking care of the lands and resources it currently owns. The public land management agencies face an exorbitant maintenance backlog approaching $22 billion. There may be limited circumstances where acquiring additional federal lands makes sense, such as when it would increase public access or create administrative efficiencies. But it is time to start using the LWCF to help the federal government take care of the resources it already owns, rather than just exacerbating the problem by adding to the federal estate. More is not always better.
As we look to reauthorize the LWCF, I believe it makes sense to shift the federal focus away from land acquisition, particularly in western states, toward the stateside program and toward maintaining and enhancing the accessibility and quality of the resources the federal government already has. This is the best way to meet the recreation needs of the American people — and the best way to put our nation’s recreation system on a path to long-term viability.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is the senior U.S. Senator from the state of Alaska. She has served in the Senate since 2002 and assumed senior ranking following the retirement of Sen. Ted Stevens in 2009.