Tucked into the FY23 appropriations bill is language that provides authority to the National Park Service to use Land and Water Conservation funds for state administrative costs. This one line in the spending bill will significantly benefit states’ abilities to build and maintain state and local parks across the country.
The Land and Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the only federal program dedicated strictly to outdoor recreation areas with strong bipartisan support dating back to its inception in 1964. Two of LWCF’s major programs are the Stateside Conservation Program – which partners with states to fund local and state parks on a project-by-project basis – and the Federal Land Acquisition Programs – which support purchasing land and water plots to increase outdoor recreation areas. These activities are funded without the use of any taxpayer dollars through revenue from federal energy leases. Many of the playgrounds you grew up going to or state parks you vacationed at are there because of LWCF.
Many of us played a role supporting and advancing the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, as well as the Great American Outdoors Act – two of the most significant conservation bills in recent history. The two bills collectively permanently reauthorized LWCF and provided full funding to LWCF at $900 million annually. Before these two bills passed, LWCF was appropriated far below the authorized $900 million and struggled to get reauthorized among many different end-of-year competing priorities. So, when these bills were signed into law in the 116th Congress, sufficient infrastructure was not in place to administer this surplus of funding.
Congress appropriated additional funding to the National Park Service to build out regional and federal staff to administer LWCF. Under both the Trump and Biden Administrations, senior leadership prioritized and shepherded this broadly supported program. However, states in charge of submitting project requests, administering funds, and maintaining existing LWCF sites did not have the same luxury. In many states, there is oftentimes one government employee charged with running their entire LWCF program. This might have worked in a pre-GAOA and Dingell Act era, but has since left many states struggling to meet the requests for new project submissions.
However, that all has now changed with one sentence in the recently enacted omnibus legislation. Now, states can use up to seven percent of funds provided for State Conservation Grants to support states in covering administrative costs. This means states can be afforded additional bandwidth similar to its federal counterparts to support more outdoor recreation projects. It also means that states can spend more time with less-resourced communities that might struggle to put together an LWCF project request – when these communities are generally most in need – because there are greater resources to do so.
There is still work to be done. The National Park Service and states must determine the parameters around these funds, and states must support additional headcount for this important to work to be done. In the meantime, we will celebrate this big win for local conservation efforts and look forward to more local parks coming to neighborhoods near us.