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As political stars align, billions more set to fund national parks

Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park, closed because of the coronavirus.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Driving down Interstate 15, with miles of windswept Mojave Desert flashing by, a traveler could be forgiven for not paying the Southern California expanse much attention.

But with its diverse wildlife, scenic vistas and cultural significance — be it Native American petroglyphs or abandoned gold mines — the region has been “increasingly recognized as a very important resource,” conservationist Geary Hund says.

Now Congress is on the verge of passing a bill providing billions of dollars to invest in that resource and others in California and nationwide. The measure, the Great American Outdoors Act, would increase the money available from federal energy fees both to purchase property and to tackle a maintenance backlog at existing public lands after years of budget cuts.

The Senate passed the bill 73-25 in mid-June; the House voted a month later. President Trump had said he’ll sign it into law. The prospects for passage — the result of an unusual election-year alignment of political interests — mark a major victory for environmental advocates and a sharp contrast with the general stalemate on legislation in Washington.

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The cash that the bill would provide would benefit public spaces of every size — not just the vast expanses of California’s deserts, but also parks and green spaces in the heart of Los Angeles.

The Mojave Desert Land Trust, a conservation nonprofit where Hund is executive director, is already anticipating how its operations could benefit — and offers a prism through which the proposed law and, more broadly, its effect on the great American outdoors can be viewed.

The trust buys up the private land parcels pockmarking California’s Mojave and Colorado deserts and resells them to federal agencies including the National Park Service. Hund said the parcels may once have been bought sight unseen, perhaps by individuals enticed by newspaper ads offering the chance to “own a piece of California.” Generations later, some lie forgotten within the boundaries of public lands.

“They might just sit there forever and not be an issue,” Hund said. “But someone could come in and develop them, or mine them or do some sort of land use that could be very deleterious.”

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As a private entity, the trust can move to acquire these properties faster than federal agencies can, he added. But when it eventually comes time to nationalize them, the government has to pay up. Its main tool for doing so is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The fund is entitled to receive up to $900 million a year from fees the federal government collects, primarily from companies doing offshore oil and gas drilling — if Congress and the president agree to appropriate the money. It’s been rare, however, that they approve that much.

In a report last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted that “less than half of the $40.9 billion in total revenues that have accrued [over the program’s lifetime] have been appropriated.”

The Great American Outdoors Act would change that: By default, all $900 million would go to the Land and Water Conservation Fund for its projects — including, perhaps, the purchases of Mojave parcels — no further appropriation needed.

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“The status quo will be that it’ll be appropriated,” said Holly Doremus, an environmental regulation professor at UC Berkeley.

Critics of the bill, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board and a cohort of about 20 of the House’s most conservative Republicans, have decried the proposed change in law as putting the appropriations process on “autopilot.”

“Some Republicans like that the fund improves local and state recreation areas,” the Journal editorial board wrote. “Others claim the federal purchase of private land helps agencies maintain existing parks and forests. Fair enough, but then approve it each year instead of putting more federal spending on automatic.”

In addition to land acquisition, the federal fund also provides matching grants to state and local governments for outdoor recreation projects. Anyone who has swum at Lincoln Park, jogged Runyon Canyon or picnicked at Griffith Park has likely used facilities supported in part by the federal fund.

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Such grants “have created or improved more than one thousand parks throughout California,” according to a statement from the California Department of Parks and Recreation. If the bill becomes law, support for states and local entities likely would increase, including for urban parkland in areas where low-income people have little access to outdoor getaways.

Close to 40% of L.A. residents, and half in the county, don’t have easy access to natural spaces, said Jon Christensen of the Los Angeles River State Park Partners. And according to Tori Kjer, executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, “having a federal grant program that supports … park design, development, open space, and helping to either acquire properties or develop properties, is really critical to making sure that we can reverse park inequity.”

Conservatives often argue that the government shouldn’t be acquiring new properties when it doesn’t adequately maintain those it has. National parks have more than $11 billion in work on roads, buildings, utilities and facilities that has been delayed by over a year because of budget constraints, the National Park Service reported.

The legislation would address this problem. It would dedicate up to $1.9 billion a year, for fiscal years 2021 through 2025, to reduce the maintenance backlog. The park service would share the money with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Education and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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“There’s just a lot of stuff that has not been taken care of over the years by the federal budget,” Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said.

It’s not just mundane housekeeping. “There’s a water line in Grand Canyon [National Park] that basically provides all of the water for … where most people visit. It’s about a $100-million, maybe $120-million, improvement,” Shafroth said, adding, “If it goes, there’s no water.”

Deferred maintenance is a concern in the Southern California deserts where Hund works, too. According to National Park Service data, at the end of fiscal year 2018, Death Valley needed an estimated $129 million in deferred maintenance work; Mojave National Preserve, $118 million; and Joshua Tree, $66 million.

In a hyper-partisan era, supporters are quick to note the park bill’s bipartisan support. That backing partly reflects the fact that the money almost entirely comes from fees from energy development on federal lands and waters. Also, according to the Outdoor Industry Assn., outdoor recreation generates 7.6 million jobs nationally, including 691,000 in California.

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Despite the broad popularity of these policies in California and nationally, getting the legislation to this point took a chance alignment of the “political stars,” as Doremus put it.

Prominent in that constellation were Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, Republicans from outdoors-friendly states who are considered vulnerable in their reelection bids. Party leaders, including Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have gone out of their way to give credit to the two senators for shepherding the measure through Congress, even as some critics call their effort an aberration from otherwise less-than-green politics.

“It’s like any other legislation in Washington — sometimes something just breaks loose, and the time is right,” said Willis Yarberry, director of government affairs for the Western Rivers Conservancy. “It helps if you’re prepared.”

The Mojave Desert Land Trust says it’s ready. Trust officials estimate that 221,032 acres of private land exist within the parks and wilderness areas where it operates; at the current pace, full acquisition would take another 34 years.

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Hund anticipates that the Great American Outdoors Act, if it becomes law, will bring in a “huge infusion of money” and accelerate the process.

“We’re saving the Mojave,” he said. “One acquisition — one acre — at a time.”


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