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Trust Our Land: The great American experiment of public lands

Oliver Skelly
Eagle Vally Land Trust
Funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund present a big opportunity for local conservation projects like Sweetwater Lake.
Todd Winslow Pierce | Special to the Daily

America’s National Park system has seldom lacked an influential backer or two. President Franklin Roosevelt said of the system, “There is nothing so American as our national parks.” Wallace Stegner, colloquially known as “The Dean of Western Writers,” claimed, “National parks are the best idea we’ve ever had … they reflect us at our best, rather than our worst.”

Even Stegner’s crusty contemporary, Edward Abbey, despite his many misgivings, managed to write his classic, “Desert Solitaire,” smack dab in the middle of Arches National Park. 

While national parks comprise only a smidgeon of all federal inholdings — approximately 52 million out of 640 million total acres — their accolades are an apt representation of public lands as a whole. From supporting an outdoor recreation industry that generates $646 billion annually to enhancing the livelihoods of ranchers across the American West, our public lands are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of communities across the country.

The fabled park system — and its larger public lands counterpart — received some additional backing last month when the 116th Congress overwhelmingly voted to send the Great American Outdoors Act to the president’s desk to sign, which he did on Aug. 4. The GAOA authorizes $9.5 billion over the next five years to address growing maintenance backlogs across our revered but often fiscally limited national parks. This bipartisan victory is a welcome embrace of America’s conservation ethos; our public lands can indeed unite us.

It’s not just national parks receiving a much needed capital infusion, however. The GAOA contains a lesser-known bit pertaining to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF was created by Congress in 1964 to send $900 million in royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling towards land and water conservation efforts within the United States. Problem was, funding for LWCF was subject to appropriations each year which has left the LWCF underfunded and underutilized since its inception.

Budgetary hawks will have to look elsewhere now thanks to the bill’s sponsor, Colorado Sen. Gardner, and Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, who gave an impassioned speech on the House floor pushing for the bill’s passage. The LWCF is required to be fully funded at $900 million per year from here on out. So what does this mean for Coloradans?

For one, the state’s four national parks will at last have the support to tackle any needed infrastructural or facility improvements. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has a backlog nearing $10 million while Mesa Verde National Park has a whopping $91 million in deferred maintenance.

The LWCF on the other hand, doles out money in two separate manners. The first allows for federal acquisitions of land deemed critically important from either a visitor or natural resource perspective. This is the application that could push the Sweetwater Lake conservation project here in our region over the finish line.The second option directs money towards state, local, and tribal governments for a variety of different needs including sustainable forestry, habitat conservation, clean waterways, recreation planning, and park building in economically disadvantaged communities.

Since its origination, the LWCF has invested more than $268 million in Colorado’s outdoors. Places like Mesa Verde National Park, Arapaho National Forest, Cross Mountain Canyon Ranch on the Yampa River, and Denver Urban Gardens have all benefited from these funds.

The Great American Outdoors Act’s passage could prove an especially laudable moment for the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s conservation work and for all those that hold places like Sweetwater Lake close to their hearts. Historic environmental legislation like that of Stegner’s day comes around only so often, but when it does, communities like ours stand much to gain.

Oliver Skelly is the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Lead Community Conservation Intern. He can be reached at Oliver@evlt.org. To learn more about the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s local conservation work, visit http://www.evlt.org.


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