President Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act Tuesday morning, making the largest public lands spending bill passed in half a century the law of the land. It sets aside almost $10 billion to address a massive maintenance backlog in the nation’s National Parks, and secures permanent, full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The ten billion dollars slated for national park maintenance is a big conservation win — stories about the slow decay of under-funded national parks abound, exacerbated by vandalism during recent government shutdowns. In Oregon alone, the national park and monument maintenance backlog totals $127 million - more than 100 million of that is for Crater Lake National Park.
The second part of the act ensures that Congress will spend all of the $900 million dollars secured each year through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF. It may seem insignificant in comparison, but Kelly Beamer, the executive director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, said the LWCF has had a larger impact on Oregon’s landscape in the past.
”I would wager that a large majority of Oregonians have used a park or trail funded by the LWCF,” Beamer said.
Established by Congress in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a grant program that helps federal, state, and municipal governments acquire or improve on public lands. The money for the fund comes from the federal government’s sale of oil and gas leases.
Every year, $900 million is set aside for the fund. And every year in the past, much of that money has been diverted. In fact, in its 55-year history, it’s only been fully funded once. Last year, a little more than half of LWCF funds were used on parks - the largest amount in 20 years. Forty percent of those funds go to national projects. The remaining 60% go to states for local grant distribution, but by the time the funds are distributed to states, it can be paltry.
”Sometimes we’d get about $500,000 in a fiscal year,” said Michele Scalise, the manager of Grants and Community Programs at the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “But in times when there was even less funding, we’d get a few thousand.”
In really low years, Scalise said, the department would let the funds accumulate until they had enough to do something worthwhile, yet still weren’t able to fund many projects. Now that full funding is secured, this should change.
It might seem astounding that an increasingly partisan Congress would pass this legislation now, when advocates have been lobbying for it for years. But it passed in the House and the Senate with massive bipartisan support: every Oregon representative, regardless of party affiliation, supported the Act.
”This sort of legislation always gets passed in a contentious election year,” said Friends of the Columbia River Gorge executive director Kevin Gorman, a group who has used the fund for conservation work.
Representatives from swing districts often come around when facing a strong competitor.
Passage of the bill also couldn’t come at a better time. In many ways, Beamer said, the Great American Outdoors Act is a massive stimulus bill. According to the Oregon Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Oregon generates 16.4 billion in consumer spending, and directly creates almost 72,000 jobs.
“There’s the immediate impact. There’s construction jobs, and then once the park is built, there’s maintenance work,” said Scalise.
Projects can also draw tourists to under-visited areas, particularly in the West, where rural towns serve as launch points for outdoor enthusiasts. That creates lasting impacts for the community in the form of local jobs and tourism.
Yet the fund is not without controversy. Some argue that tying conservation funds to fossil fuel generation isn’t sustainable long term, both in terms of fossil fuel supply and the effect they have on escalating climate change.
But the impact of the Land and Water Conservation Fund on communities across the state has been substantial. Even with meager allocations, the fund has helped create some of Oregon’s most iconic parks.
Michele Scalise said that when she’s in Portland, she’ll sometimes give other park officials a walking tour of LWCF-funded sites.
”We’ll start at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It’s not a big, forested park, but it’s a part of the city. It’s used,” she said.
Then she’ll walk to Portland’s Park blocks, the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and down the esplanade on the east side of the river. All of those parks received some financial assistance from the LWCF.
Bob Keefer has been on all sides of the LWCF planning process. As the superintendent of Willamalane Parks and Recreation District in Springfield, he spent years applying for and using LWCF funds, frequently visiting Washington to lobby for full funding of the LWCF. Once he retired, Scalise recruited him for the Oregon Outdoor Recreation Committee which helps select the grants that will receive LWCF funding.
”Sometimes these funds can serve as a catalyst for other projects,” he said.
A couple decades back, Willamalane used the fund to purchase a stretch of farmland adjacent to the Clearwater Landing boat ramp.
“It’s not glitzy, but it let us complete the trail system along the Middle Fork of the Willamette,” Keefer said.
That property was the missing piece. It allowed them to restore the area’s historic millrace, a popular canoeing route that runs much of the Middle Fork in Eugene and Springfield. That eventually led to the creation of a bike trail connecting the furthest parts of Springfield to downtown Eugene, ADA upgrades to existing facilities, and the creation of new recreation opportunities like disc golf at the Clearwater Landing boat ramp.
“I can definitively say that without LWCF funds, none of that would have happened,” he said.
Some of the parks that are funded are smaller, but no less significant. Keefer and Scalise went to the opening of a LWCF-funded splash park in Madras together.
”It’s become something of a community gathering place,” Keefer said.
The park is in an underserved area of Madras. The only swimming pool in town requires a fee. But this small park lets neighborhood kids cool off for free.
“It’s well-lit and it’s safe and kids can walk there on their own,” Scalise said.
They improved existing facilities at the park to make them more wheelchair accessible. And all water from the splash pad is collected and recycled, and used to irrigate crops.
From small to big
The 40% of the Land and Water Conservation Fund set aside for national projects has benefited the state as well.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was created in 1986. When it was made, there was almost no public land east of Hood River said Friends of the Columbia River Gorge executive director Kevin Gorman.
”In a non-COVID world, we lead about 100 hikes a year in the Gorge,” Gorman said. “About half of (the trails) did not exist when the National Scenic Area Act passed. Those hikes are all on land paid for by the LWCF.”
When it was time to restore the historic Columbia River Gorge Highway, now part of a popular hiking and biking route, much of the work was done with LWCF funds.
“Interstate-84 replaced a lot of the original highway. So we had to re-purchase lands to create new sections.”
It’s also part of a larger, more ambitious dream: the Gorge Towns to Trails, a massive loop trail stretching from Portland to the Dalles on both sides of the Columbia River.
”Instead of backcountry, it would be what we call frontcountry, so it would go from town to town,” Gorman said. “Just like you see in Europe. People will go and visit one town, and then walk to the next town and the next town.”
There are still gaps in the trail — a mile or two here and there — where the trail runs into private lands.
“We’re working on purchasing those lands and easements for conservation,” he said.
Just like on the local level, those small purchases can have a big impact. A one-mile section along the Washington side of the river was recently purchased to help complete the trail. The land will also allow the organization to restore vital salmon habitat, which Gorman says will increase water flow to key marinas near Vancouver.
All told, the LWCF funds have secured more than 50 federal sites in Oregon — from lighthouses to national forests and scenic areas to wildlife refuges. There are seven federal LWCF projects funded for 2020.
One is a new site on Arch Cape, near Haystack Rocks. The purchase would protect wildlife habitat as well as the forest landscape that serves as a backdrop for one of Oregon’s most iconic natural wonders.