As Memorial Day approaches and the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary draws near, I’ve been looking back at a pair of 2009 reports on America’s “great outdoors.” An RFF report that I coauthored reviewed the status of public lands, demand for outdoor recreation, and conservation funding trends. The study was in support of the Outdoor Resources Review Group, a 17-member bipartisan commission comprising conservation, public lands, and parks experts. US Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) were honorary co-chairs, and the commission was created by two long-time elder statesmen in the field, noted environmental lawyer Henry Diamond and Conservation Fund Chair Emeritus Patrick Noonan. The commission released its own report (published by RFF) with a set of recommendations, many of which formed the basis for President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, launched in April 2010.
Although the two reports are now seven years old, many of the findings still resonate. Here’s a brief summary—some food for thought as we approach the summer outdoor recreation season. ...
What’s happened in the seven years since these reports were published? The recession, which was just hitting the US economy as the reports were completed, had a devastating effect on state and local government budgets. In many states, the first agencies to see cuts were parks and natural resources agencies. State parks saw huge budget cuts and many of them have not fully recovered. The same is true of the federal land management agencies. The National Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog has ballooned to nearly $12 billion. The state conservation programs funded by dedicated revenue sources were hit hard and legislatures in many states diverted what money there was to other programs. Some of those programs are starting to recover but some of the diversions have remained in place. The LWCF [Land and Water Conservation Fund] Act came up for reauthorization in October 2015 and, after much debate, was renewed for only three years. While the LWCF maintains some bipartisan support in Congress, a minority group of conservative lawmakers wants to stop funding land acquisitions altogether and sell off federal lands to the states. These disputes continue, leaving the LWCF—and support for land conservation more broadly—in limbo.
All of this means we’re a long way from adopting the primary recommendation put forward by the Outdoor Resources Review Group in the commission’s report: Establishing a new, independent trust operating outside of the confines of the congressional appropriations process, with $3.2 billion of dedicated annual LWCF funding (an amount equal to the $900 million authorized in the 1970s adjusted for inflation) serving as base support.
Both of these reports stand the test of time. The RFF report and the numerous background studies that RFF researchers undertook or oversaw are a treasure trove of information about our country’s outdoor resources. If you’re interested in learning more, all of these publications can be found on the RFF project page.