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Funding the National Park System for the Next Century

On Thursday, July 25, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to consider supplemental funding options to support efforts by the National Park Service (NPS) to address deferred maintenance costs. Hearing witnesses included United States Senator Tom Coburn (OK) as well as the director of the National Park Service, Jonathan B. Jarvis, Hon. ASLA.

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The major question raised at the hearing was how to ensure the long-term viability of the national park system. In the face of lower federal funding, national park infrastructure has severely deteriorated. Roads, bridges, trails, and buildings are all in need of maintenance and repair. According to NPS Director Jarvis, by the end of fiscal year 2012 (FY12), maintenance backlog costs had accumulated to approximately $11.5 billion. In order to keep the deferred maintenance backlog from growing, the NPS would need approximately $700 million a year.

While Director Jarvis emphasized that federal appropriations were most critical to the NPS, additional alternative funding methods were discussed. Suggestions for supplemental funding varied. Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (OR) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (AK) want to explore a way to modify the park system’s fee structure to pay for park maintenance. Another method discussed was raising the federal gas tax by a penny and using the money for park maintenance. Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) suggested that roads could be paid for with user fees, or the costs could be handed over to the states. Jarvis rejected the idea of state responsibility, claiming that roads inside federal lands are a federal responsibility. Other suggestions for supplementary funding included creating an NPS endowment, raising park entrance fees, and establishing public–private matching funds. The committee and NPS plan to continue exploring options for funding park maintenance.

Senators Coburn and Alexander discussed one of the most controversial plans for funding NPS projects, which is to tap into the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to pay for deferred NPS road projects—which account for nearly half of the NPS maintenance backlog—in exchange for fully funding LWCF for a decade. Currently, the LWCF is used to fund federal land acquisitions aimed at preserving natural resources and for local parks and recreation projects. Many landscape architects around the country access the LWCF to plan and design local community parks and recreation projects.

Established in 1965, LWCF is already paid for through offshore oil and natural gas receipts. Nearly 50 years ago, Congress made a commitment to the American public that a small portion of revenues from offshore drilling would go to natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation programs as an offset for the depletion of the offshore oil and gas resources that belong to American citizens. While Congress has agreed to put as much as $900 million into the fund every year, this total has never been reached. In FY2013, LWCF received about $332 million.

Director Jarvis and Senator Maria Cantwell (WA) rejected the notion of accessing the LWCF to pay for NPS maintenance, claiming that land acquisition is a necessary component in our role as environmental stewards. Using LWCF for maintenance would change the program’s mission.

Tell us what you think. If full funding for LWCF was guaranteed, would you support using the fund to pay off the NPS’s maintenance backlog in this way? ASLA encourages you to voice your opinion in the comment section below!

Comments July 30, 2013 7:17 AM
Yes, if the tax issue from offshore energy receives scrutiny and the correct "fix." Big oil is not paying taxes it currently owes. Citizens for Ta Justice explains one situation: Transocean, Ltd., the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig has its real corporate headquarters in Houston. But the company “relocated” on paper from Texas to Delaware, then to the Cayman Islands in 1999, and finally to Switzerland in 2008. Transocean has saved an estimated $2 billion in taxes because of its corporate inversion. Four other large oil service companies located in Texas have “relocated” their headquarters using this scheme.(accessed 2013) These companies have huge checkbooks but without a disaster like DWH, they do not return to the US what they reap. July 30, 2013 8:14 AM
Should this be a surprise to anyone? Our federal infrastructure has long been running on a dime a day for many years while critical infrastructure is collapsing around us. From a purely economic point of view, those that benefit should support the costs of repairs and rehabilitation, and that, despite Mr. Jarvis' contention that the states should not have to support te park roads, includes those states whose coffers get filled by tourists visiting the parks. Cost-sharing the park rehabilitation work wouldn't break the states and they, along with the users, should share in the costs. The other thought is to invite corporate America into a partnership with the federal Government and let corporations contribute (no ostentatious signs thanks) to parks of their choosing and let them take that as a tax break. July 30, 2013 8:33 AM
Just at first glance, I support tapping into LWCF to help pay for NPS maintenance. The LWCF has a long history of being woefully underfunded, with millions siphoned to other areas. A diverse range of groups benefit from LWCF, but so far, they've been forced to fight over a small slice of the bigger $900 mill pie that had been promised to them. If paying for NPS maintenance means higher accountability and full funding, this could mean more money not only for preserving our favorite parks, but also for LWCF's other objectives, like land acquisition and park creation. July 30, 2013 8:34 AM
Just at first glance, I support tapping into LWCF to help pay for NPS maintenance. The LWCF has a long history of being woefully underfunded, with millions siphoned to other areas. A diverse range of groups benefit from LWCF, but so far, they've been forced to fight over a small slice of the bigger $900 mill pie that had been promised to them. If paying for NPS maintenance means higher accountability and full funding, this could mean more money not only for preserving our favorite parks, but also for LWCF's other objectives, like land acquisition and park creation. July 30, 2013 9:02 AM
Not in favor of diverting LWCF to pay for overdue deferred NPS maintenance. Both deserve substantial funding. The article mentions that LWCF has never been fully funded ($900 million target established by Congress; last year's funding $332 mil.) So "fully funding LWCF" might seem a good trade off. But I'd be curious to know what historic funding patterns have been for LWCF. Is $332m typical? Or (like everything else) has it been cut from previous levels? Was it typically $400m, $600m or what in past decades? That would have been good to mention here. If LWCF were to be "fully" funded at $900m, but with $700m then allocated to NPS maintenance(the amount noted as needed to keep the backlog from growing further), we would be at an actual LWCF funding level of $200m. Doesn't sound like a smart move to me, nor one that fulfills the original intent - the original promise - of the LWCF legislation. July 30, 2013 9:15 AM
We always advise clients never to build what they cannot afford to maintain. I would be in favor of using a significant portion of LWCF funds, if fully funded, to support NPS maintenance. If we are not maintaining what we have, it does not make a lot of sense to continue acquiring additional land, particularly assets that the NPS would be responsible for maintaining. July 30, 2013 10:18 AM
There is currently too much NPS ownership; divest excessive ownership and responsibility. July 30, 2013 10:51 AM
The mission of the LWCF is vitally important and should remain the same. Maintaining the National Parks is critically important, because once they're gone, there is no going back, but the mission of the LWCF should not be sacrificed. It is unfortunate that politicians do not see the value of the NPS. Maintaining the National Parks helps to maintain healthy people and communities, and the benefits of the parks go far beyond scenic beauty and environmental conservation - they are economic engines that benefit the masses. Appropriate funding levels should be allocated in the federal budget to staff and maintain the National Parks. Additional gas tax and/or higher entrance fees are the best options to restore this funding. July 30, 2013 10:55 AM
Some combination of the proposed solutions is in order. The fee structure is outdated and you could easily raise more funds without an across the board increase. $10 or $15 for a family for a week seems like a missed revenue opportunity. Perhaps NPS could charge more for tourists who are not a US resident? There is a great deal of visitors from Europe and Asia who would probably be willing to pay more. The gas tax seems like a logical way to pay for the road improvements. One drawback is that it is a regressive tax, having a disproportionate effect on low-income families. Something needs to be done before parks start being closed. They are too valuable and unique a resource to let them fall into total disrepair. July 30, 2013 11:34 AM
Perhaps funding to support our national parks needs to come from taxes and fees from rich corporations such as, OIL/CORPORATE AGRICULTURE/ UTILITY COMPANIES/ COAL/and others. These taxes and fees cannot be simply passed on to the consumer, in that same old way. Taxing the consumer, is all good. Yet why do our elected officials use the same solutions? Who has the big profits and the freedom to exploit the land and sea without any real cost? That is right, Big Corporations do. The Bailed Out Banks, can also contribute. Where they not saved by consumer taxes, those same taxes that could have funded the work for the NPS? If banks and corporations can send money off-shore; why are they not able to contribute to support national heritage or those that support these sites, like the NPS? It is a serious injustice to tax few consumers, raise gas prices and wonder why then, some of those consumers never make it to visit a national park. Senators and policy makers need to think outside the box, and then remember how taxing the same consumers will impact their use of the NPS and access to such sites. Bottom line--we all can and must contribute. Shame on these senators for not doing the hard work it takes. July 30, 2013 1:51 PM
As an NPS program officer for the LWCF State & Local Assistance program (the smaller state/local/tribal parks funding mechanism within LWCF) I can't comment specifically as Congress deliberates on this question. What I would like to add is that the LWCF Act that enables several different funds including, but not limited to, those highlighted in the article, will expire in late 2014. Re-authorization efforts in 2013-2014, as well as other recent proposed legislation for urban parks, provide an opportunity to think about and even update the legislation to best serve contemporary needs, as needed. For more re-authorization information, see: Thanks, Martha Droge ASLA July 30, 2013 5:24 PM
Access to parks, tours and maintenance could be contracted out to qualified companies. Large expanses of wilderness could be left alone and unmanaged simply to preserve the habitat and carry on the lands ecological purpose! October 14, 2013 6:10 PM
The question posed asks us to fight over pennies, while the military receives a budget many, many times over. Instead of asking already-cash strapped natural resource agencies to reassess, we should first go after where the money really is -- gobbled up by our bloated military budget... while meager amounts are portioned to our country's national parks.
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