A recently passed stimulus package could be the key to protecting the 72,000 outdoor recreation jobs in Oregon. According to the Oregon Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Oregon generates $16.4 billion in consumer spending annually and generates $749 million in state and local tax revenue.
The Great American Outdoors Act, passed by both houses of Congress, was signed into law on Tuesday, Aug. 4. It was the largest spending bill on public lands in fifty years, totaling almost $10 billion. Not only does it deal with a severe backlog of maintenance in national parks, but it also creates permanent full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Facilities in national parks had been suffering gradual decay for years, and vandalism during recent government shutdowns has accelerated that degradation. The act’s other provision doesn’t actually require any new tax money – it simply requires that money already budgeted actually be spent according to the budget.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created in 1965, setting aside $900 million out of every year’s federal income from oil and gas leases for the purchase or improvement of national parks and recreation areas. That might sound like a small amount in a trillion-dollar national budget, but the fund has had a large impact on the quality of national parks and their recreational value. As Kelly Beamer, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, said to Oregon Public Broadcasting: ”I would wager that a large majority of Oregonians have used a park or trail funded by the LWCF.”
What’s more, the fund accomplished this in spite of the fact that in many years, much of its funding was diverted by Congress to other uses. In fact, in only one of the 55 years of its existence has it actually received its full funding. The new law should prevent future Congresses from raiding the LWCF in this fashion, and put LWCF funding into a “lockbox” akin to the protection urged by many for Social Security funding.
The fact that LWCF money comes from fossil fuel leases is itself a source of controversy – both as an ethical matter and a practical one since fossil fuels are inevitably going to run out, and may even become uneconomical before they are played out. That funding source is under question. For the time being, conservation advocates are glad that the LWCF will at least actually be getting the money.
About 40 percent of the fund’s money is typically spent on national projects, and the rest is divided up into grants to states for local parks.
A bill like this might seem like a hard sell in such a deeply divided political climate, but according to Kevin Gorman, Executive Director of Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, “This sort of legislation always gets passed in a contentious election year,” because it has elements which appeal to people of widely differing ideologies. Progressives like the idea of preserving natural areas and creating facilities for all citizens to use, while conservatives like seeing money coming home, and jobs being created locally.
John M. Burt