Unfinished Business—Land&People

In the seaside town of Biloxi, Mississippi, it’s 100 sweltering degrees in the shade with no relief in sight. Jon Jarvis, his uniform soaked in sweat, has been up since dawn communicating with his field rangers.

Through the hottest hours of the afternoon, the director of the U.S. National Park Service studies the deceptively tranquil surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Jarvis is waiting for another “black tide” to roll in and spill globs of oil onto white sand. For weeks he has maintained a vigilant presence here while the nation’s worst-ever oil spill unfolded. Up and down the coastline from Texas to Florida, a vast mosaic of rich marshes, estuaries, bayous, and barrier islands has been stained by millions of barrels of crude gushing from the crippled Deepwater Horizon well offshore.

“The impacts are likely going to take decades to fully heal,” Jarvis says ruefully. Before the well was finally plugged in August, the oil spill damaged human livelihoods, traditional fishing grounds, crucially important aquatic and coastal habitats, and favorite beaches. “Everything is intertwined,” Jarvis says. “It’s easy to become depressed by what’s happened if you let it get to you. There’s nothing we can do except respond.”

Jarvis and a team of scientific advisers from multiple government agencies are already formulating one way to respond: by acquiring private lands and waters from willing sellers to bolster the size of the Gulf’s existing national parks and federal wildlife refuges. The intent is to give stressed marine life and wildlife populations protected spaces large enough to enable them to recover. In these sanctuaries, nature-craving humans will be able to find solace, too.

A Nationwide Need

Enlarging federal parks and refuges to help restore the Gulf may be the most dramatic example of the urgent need for new federal land conservation, but it is hardly the only one. While the Obama administration and Congress have demonstrated renewed support for conservation, decades of chronic underfunding have created a backlog of demand at federal parks, forests, and wildlife refuges coast to coast. The National Park Service alone has identified 1.9 million acres of private lands within park boundaries— lands known as inholdings—that need protection. Millions more acres on the edges of federal parks and refuges have been authorized for protection if and when federal funds become available.

“These are not simply ‘nice to have’ properties but lands crucial to improving park management, protecting wildlife and water, responding to climate change, and keeping up with the recreation demands of a swelling population,” says Kathy DeCoster, federal affairs director of The Trust for Public Land. “In many instances, conserving these lands would save money in the long run.”

For example, at Mount Rainier National Park, the Carbon River entry road washes out every few years, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild each time. In 2004, Congress expanded the authorized boundary of the park to accommodate a new entry road that would be safe from flooding and a new trailhead and campground to serve the park’s nearly two million annual visitors. But acquiring the land for the new road and facilities is taking years due to the limited availability of federal funding.

In the Sierra Nevada of California, hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail through Tahoe National Forest move from public land to private property every few miles. The existence of more than 400,000 acres of inholdings in this national forest makes it difficult for forest managers to plan for recreation and wildlife protection. Managers also worry that islands of development on those private lands would dramatically drive up the cost and danger of fighting fires. One owner of many inholdings, a forestry company, has worked with TPL for years to add key parcels to the national forest. Federal dollars to help complete the large backlog of crucial deals are finally starting to flow, thanks to the support of U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein.

Similar stories can be told about national forests from Montana to Washington State. Like the Tahoe National Forest, these forests ended up in a checkerboard pattern of public and private land after federal properties were given to railroad companies in the 19th century, which creates significant challenges for contemporary federal land managers. The government does not always need to buy such lands to protect them—often it is enough to purchase easements that prevent development and guarantee environmentally sensitive forestry.

Using land purchases or easements to create connected landscapes within and between parks and forests is increasingly important at a time when climate change is producing new stresses on wildlife and their habitats. Scientists have long understood that wildlife do not respect park boundaries, and that conservation should be targeted to create land linkages, protect migration corridors, and preserve seasonal habitat. Now ecologists are asking where wildlife will move as climate changes and what lands should be protected to maintain thriving and healthy wildlife populations into the future. That need alone is creating a large new demand for federal conservation action.

The Danger of Delay

Putting off such conservation could permanently damage some of the nation’s most cherished wildlands. In Wyoming, the state is threatening to sell 1,300 acres it owns in the middle of Grand Teton National Park. The land is a so-called school section awarded by the federal government to support education in the state, long before the national park was created. Rented out for grazing, the land has been bringing in about $3,000 annually; sold to developers, it could generate upwards of $125 million for state schools. The best way to protect the park’s wildlife and visitor experience would be for the federal government to buy the land and add it to the park.

And it’s not just western wildlands that are endangered. Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) points to Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, site of the Continental Army’s 1777–1778 winter camp during the Revolutionary War. In 1980, Congress expanded the boundary of the park to include the 78-acre Pawlings Farm along the Schuylkill River. More than 30 years later, with the land still not protected, a private company announced that it would build a for-profit museum there. At the eleventh hour, NPCA engineered a creative land trade that prevented scarring of an important park viewshed.

“It’s risky believing that such last-minute rescues can be arranged,” Tipton says. “In case after case, it didn’t happen and public treasures are having to cope with very negative consequences.” Examples: One inholder built a mini-mansion in a scenic area of Utah’s Zion National Park after brushing off conservation concerns. And at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, a massive new home is threatened for the scenic gorge rim.

“The Park Service has its hands tied when it doesn’t have access to serious money to negotiate a buyout,” Tipton says. “Any authority the Park Service has to negotiate is hollow if it doesn’t have the financial resources.”

Private forests are also endangered and could benefit from increased federal conservation support. Between 2000 and 2030, according to a U.S. Forest Service report released in August, development pressure is expected to affect 57 million acres of private forests, an area larger than the state of Idaho. This will threaten urban water supplies and wildlife habitat and reduce the carbon stored in trees, worsening climate change. States and communities use several federal funding sources to help protect private forests through the acquisition of land or easements. Unfortunately, the availability of funds has not kept up with the demand.

Federal Funds for Conservation

Several federal programs fund conservation. These include, among others, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, which works with states to protect working forests through easements that prevent development; the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which helps purchase easements on agricultural lands; and the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But by far the largest federal program for funding conservation is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), established in 1964 and funded with proceeds from the leasing of oil and gas wells on the outer continental shelf. Congress’s 1968 decision to fund the LWCF in this way linked the exploitation of one resource with the protection of others.

Each year Congress is authorized to appropriate up to $900 million from these proceeds—which averaged more than $6 billion a year over the past five years—to be shared between federal land acquisitions and the conservation efforts of states and cities. If $900 million actually had been appropriated in 2009—and this is the biggest if in federal conservation—it would have represented .003 percent of that year’s total federal expenditures.

In fact, over the last four decades there have been only a few years when the full $900 million in the LWCF was distributed to federal and state land agencies. In most of those years only a pittance was appropriated to meet critical needs, as in 2008, when just $152 million was allocated. Although the purpose of the LWCF is crystal clear, the language of the law is hamstrung by one significant defect: a provision that allows Congress to treat allocation of LWCF monies as “discretionary.” This has opened the door for LWCF funds to be earmarked for programs that have nothing to do with conservation.

Full Funding for THE LWCF?

For years conservationists have dreamed of full funding for the LWCF—a nondiscretionary, automatic $900 million appropriation each year. The Obama administration favors the idea, as do lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle. But the best chance to date for full LWCF funding to become law may be an ironic by-product of the Gulf oil spill. The catastrophe highlighted nationwide conservation needs, and the link that the LWCF forges between offshore oil and conservation has not been lost on lawmakers. Last summer, even as crude gushed from BP’s blown well, Congress added full LWCF funding to legislation developed in response to the spill.

“I think the stars are finally aligning for the LWCF, and unfortunately it has taken the oil spill to jolt our attention,” says Alan Rowsome, a conservation specialist with the Wilderness Society. The society, TPL, and Outdoors America are leading partners in the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, more than 60 nonprofits and industry groups organized to promote full LWCF funding. “Since the LWCF was authorized in 1965, between $17 billion and $18 billion in funds that were supposed to be used for conservation never were,” Rowsome adds. “The absence of that money is never more vivid than in the wake of disasters.”

“Amid a great recession, it might appear difficult to mount a persuasive argument for conservation,” says Paul Sanford of the American Canoe Association, a member of the LWCF coalition. “But I would argue that, if you look at the real economics, failing to utilize the LCWF now, when land values are suppressed somewhat, is what doesn’t make sense.” Sanford calls the LWCF “the most successful federal land acquisition program that pays its own way,” and he maintains that “environmental protection is a tool for economic development.”

That opinion is shared by the Outdoor Industry Association, another coalition member, which has pegged the value of hiking, bicycling, hunting, fishing, and other recreation to the U.S. and local economies at $730 billion. The industry supports 6.5 million jobs and represents 8 percent of total annual consumer spending. Even in the recession, outdoor industry sales rose at a rate of 6 percent between January and August 2010.

Funding conservation makes sense to the American public as well: a spring 2010 poll by the National Parks Conservation Association found 86 percent support for full LWCF funding, despite the reeling economy. Even among those who said that reducing the national deficit was a priority, eight in ten supported the LWCF.

Whether arguments of need, economic benefit, or public desire ultimately will succeed in securing full LWCF funding is still up in the air. In August the House of Representatives passed an oil spill bill that included a full-funding provision. As Land&People went to press, conservationists were hopeful that the Senate would follow suit and that national parks, forests, refuges, and recreation areas may finally begin to get the lands they need.

“These lands are a legacy for all Americans,” says TPL’s Kathy DeCoster. “They protect the environment, build the economy, serve a growing population, and address the challenge of climate change. It has never been more important to protect them.”

Montana-based freelancer Todd Wilkinson writes for many national magazines and is a western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He is currently writing a book about Ted Turner.