[Ed. Note: With the and Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) scheduled to expire at the end of September 2015, we invited a key decision maker — the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is charged with reauthorizing the LWCF — to share his views on reforming the LWCF, including the value of the State Assistance Program and the need to provide a greater share of LWCF dollars to address close-to-home outdoor recreation needs. The following is a guest column from the Honorable Rob Bishop of Utah.]
With summer quickly approaching and many Americans making family vacation plans to visit our nation’s federal lands, let’s imagine a scene. Hot, sweaty, physically exerted and mentally drained, a hiker comes to a fork in a trail on an afternoon trek through a popular Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recreation area. One direction leads safely back to the trailhead, the other to treacherous, overgrown terrain, unsuitable for human endeavor. Here’s the catch: there’s no sign differentiating the two.
Unfortunately, this story isn’t fiction. The trail in question is near Little Wild Horse Canyon in Utah’s Emery County. Sadly, this hiker lost her life simply because she picked the wrong fork in the trail. Why wasn’t there a simple sign — a clear direction showing which way to go and which to avoid? The locals had requested for years that the BLM put up a sign directing back to the trailhead, for this was not the first time a hiker had gone missing in this locality. BLM, however, insisted the expense was not worth it and would destroy the “wilderness” experience. A sign would have cost a couple thousand dollars but would have also saved the hiker from her death.
The reason why the agency did not take this issue seriously appears to stem from oversight caused by the enormous maintenance backlog on federal lands, which is quickly climbing past the $30 billion mark. A simple solution paves the way out: Give more control back to the state and local governments that are much closer to the problem, nimbler, better able to fix what’s broken, and have a proven track record of providing safe and enjoyable recreation to the public.
Fifty years ago, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The intent of the law was to “preserve, develop and ensure access to outdoor recreation facilities to strengthen the health of U.S. citizens.” Funding for LWCF is split primarily between two programs: one that funds state and local projects through matching grants (State Assistance, or, the “Stateside” Program, as it is frequently called) and one that solely funds federal land acquisition. Originally, 60 percent of the funds in the program were specifically set aside for the Stateside Program. Over the years, intense lobbying from national environmental special interest groups has shifted federal land acquisition to become the lion’s share of LWCF. Despite far greater returns in fulfilling the intent of the 1965 law, in 2013, Stateside received just 16 percent of LWCF funds.
Today, the federal government’s land management policies are failing states and local communities. The BLM is responsible for administering more than 245 million surface acres, most of which is located in 11 western states and Alaska, and manages more than 22.9 million acres in the state of Utah alone. The BLM is responsible for more land than any of the other federal land management agencies. Nevertheless, the Obama administration wants to spend millions of new taxpayer dollars to purchase more federal lands, despite massive and growing maintenance backlogs and increasingly catastrophic wildfires that cost taxpayers billions of dollars on existing federal land. BLM’s long-term plan is to purchase another 647,000 acres at an estimated cost of almost $630 million.
When the federal government purchases new land with federal acquisition dollars under LWCF, the land is thrown on top of the heap of numerous other federal lands in desperate need of repairs and restoration. All the while, local counties and rural communities surrounded by federal land are let down. They can’t collect property taxes, and as a result, they struggle to pay for law enforcement and firefighters, schools and roads. The locals can’t even put up a sign showing hikers how to safely return to the trailhead. Almost 70 percent of lands in Utah are owned by the federal government. In my district, Daggett County is especially restricted — all but 2 percent of the lands are federally owned. That’s a crippling disadvantage.
Our federal lands should be valuable recreational and economic assets to our state and local communities. Instead, they are many times a liability and threat to local economies and our environment. The assumption that the federal government is a better steward of the land than states and local communities is at the heart of this policy failure. BLM should focus on taking care of the sweeping swaths of land it already owns and be a better neighbor to adjoining state, tribal or local lands instead of reaching out its hands for more, more, more.
This September, the LWCF program expires. Many politicians simply want Congress to extend the law as it currently exists. To me, however, passing a 50-year-old law without common sense reform is a missed opportunity. There are different needs today than when the LWCF was created half a century ago, and the program has failed its original intent. Growing maintenance backlogs and existing management barriers at BLM and across all federal management agencies must be addressed before we even consider giving the federal government more land. It is also prudent for us to look at creative and wiser ways to spend LWCF funds. Most importantly, we need to provide state and local communities with greater control and involvement over land-management decisions that directly affect them, which includes a more robust and equitable distribution of LWCF to the Stateside Program.
The story of Little Wild Horse Canyon is a tragic admonition of the failings of the federal government and LWCF. Had more control over these lands been vested at the state and local level, the problem could have been identified, corrective action could have been taken and a life could have been saved. LWCF is an important program, and now is the time to reinvent it to fulfill its purpose.
Rep. Rob Bishop represents Utah’s 1st Congressional District.
U.S. Representative Rob Bishop has served Utah’s First Congressional District for 12 years. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Bishop serves on the Committee on Natural Resources, where in 2015 he was appointed chairman. Under Bishop’s leadership, the Committee on Natural Resources has restructured to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its legislative and oversight operations. The Committee’s agenda will focus on the responsible development of domestic energy resources, active management of federal lands, and greater collaboration with our state, tribal and local partners in the creation and modernization of related federal policies. This includes the LWCF. Prior to his service in Congress, Rep. Bishop served 16 years in Utah’s legislature, including as majority leader and Speaker of the House. Prior to entering public service, Rep. Bishop spent 28 years teaching high school German, debate and history. Rep. Bishop and his wife, Jeralynn Hansen Bishop, have five children and six grandchildren and reside in Brigham City, Utah.