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Budget-battered federal program can't police park conversions

Park visitors watch as Andrew Councell rappels down the face of Chimney Rock, N.C.

Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964 with vigorous bipartisan support, in part to “strengthen the health and vitality of the citizens” in parks where they could stay in shape by running, walking, bicycling and playing.  This was long before the obesity epidemic that has gripped America in the last two decades. 

The Act authorized the use of motorboat fuel taxes, proceeds from sales of surplus federal land and federally collected recreation fees to fund acquisition and improvement of local, state and federal parks. But in 1968, with a booming population and an according need for new parks, Congress tapped a major new revenue source. Offshore oil drilling was taking off, and it was happening on seafloor controlled by the federal government. Currently, up to $900 million per year of the drilling royalties are available for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Those royalties helped preserve some of America’s most special places – from California’s redwoods to North Carolina’s Chimney Rock – and provided opportunities in and around cities for outdoor recreation. The Fund provided money that would eventually be used for almost 42,000 grants to states and local governments. That funding, along with state matching money, purchased more than 2.6 million acres – an area bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. More than $3.9 billion-plus has gone to state and local parks. 

At first, the park-buying program was popular and successful. Grants soared to an ambitious $370 million in 1980. 

But total outlays dipped to zero when Reagan administration budget cuts hit in the early ‘80s, jumped back up to $110 million in 1983 and then began a long slide to just $16 million a year starting in 1988. For four years in the late 1990s, under President Bill Clinton, the program was again zeroed out: Oil companies continued to pay royalties for offshore drilling, but the money coming into the Land and Water Conservation Fund was not allocated to parkland for states and cities, as the law called for. And while campaigning in 2000, President George W. Bush promised to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund – which he did, only to divert funds to other Department of Interior programs while trying to slash outdoor recreation spending to zero in his second term. 

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“The program has been up and down for years in resources given to grants,” said Joel Lynch, chief of the Park Service’s State and Local Assistance Programs Division. 

Over the decades, staffing went on the same roller-coaster ride as the budget. In the 1970s, the program operated as an independent agency, employing about 100 people. By the 1990s, it had shrunk to a backwater National Park Service bureau where, Anderson said, the number of personnel dropped from about 75 in 1995 to just 12 in 1997. Today the equivalent of 23.5 fulltime employees work there – about a quarter the number in the 1970s. 

Yet the number of parks protected under the act has continued to grow year by year. 

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Land values have appreciated significantly since many of the parks were first created. As a result, government and developers have been looking for ways to capitalize on that value. And as cities and counties have grown, sometimes infrastructure needs collide with recreation space. 

'Equal fair market value'
Park Service officials say one of the most frequent reasons parkland is converted is to build or widen roads, although conversions for other uses, such as cellphone towers, have become more common in recent years. 

Under federal regulations, a decision to convert a park to private use or anything other than public outdoor recreation has to be approved ahead of time by the Park Service – even though Park Service officials freely admit that large numbers of park conversions are a done deal by the time they get wind of them. By law, if parkland that has received Land and Water Conservation Fund money is converted, acreage of “at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location” must be set aside for a new park. 

The law also says such a decision has to be made under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. That law requires that federal officials in any decision affecting the environment look at all alternatives and listen to the public. The Park Service leaves it to states to carry out this responsibility when it comes to park conversions. 

However, Park Service officials acknowledge that when they find out a city or state already has allowed parkland to be converted to some other use, the consideration of other alternatives is effectively precluded, because one – keeping the parkland intact – may have already been foreclosed. 

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Lynch, head of the Park Service program, acknowledges the shortcomings: “We know the states are struggling and we know there’s a lot of issues we need to address,” Lynch said. 

And a lot of those problems trace back to one key chokepoint, he said: “We don’t have enough horses pulling the wagon.” 

Jason Alcorn contributed to this report, which was edited by Carol Smith. InvestigateWest is a donor-supported investigative newsroom in Seattle. Support its original, independent journalism for $5 a month.