A victory for the mountains – and for all public lands – recently slipped a bit under the radar in a news cycle dominated by government shutdowns and threats of government shutdowns.
The U.S. Senate, by a sweeping 92-8 bipartisan vote, passed a measure that makes permanent the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The LWCF is important news for anyone who loves to hike, hunt or fish, and for anyone who thinks it important for places where you can do those things to be preserved.
For years, the LWCF has been subject to reauthorization in dribs and drabs. Now, periodic fights over its funding – and even its existence – should be a thing of the past.
A lot of credit for this move goes to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who has been a longtime champion of the LWCF.
In a statement, Burr said, “This victory was a long time in the making, and it is the result of the steadfast efforts of many who care deeply about America’s natural treasures.
“By making the Land and Water Conservation Fund a permanent program, we ensure that our country is always able to preserve our magnificent parks and outdoor spaces. Protecting this program is the right thing to do for our children, grandchildren and countless generations so that they may come to enjoy the great American outdoors as we have.”
With Senate approval the measure headed off to the U.S. House, where similar broad support awaited.
This is a big deal. Our natural heritage is a treasure shared from generation to generation, and one that must be protected from generation to generation. By making the LWCF permanent instead of recurring, it is at least to a degree insulated from the political winds that can grind work to a halt in Congress.
With that win in the pocket, it’s time to turn to another pressing need: The huge maintenance backlog saddling the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Measures in Congress hope to address the backlog with legislation that would use portions of royalties paid to the government from energy development on public lands to cover the backlog of deferred maintenance across the National Park System estimated at around $12 billion.
The Parkway’s backlog is around $500 million.
That backlog was exacerbated by the recent 35-day-long government shutdown.
While non-governmental groups devoted to the Parkway helped step up to keep some necessary park functions going, the fact is core park workers weren’t on the job for those 35 days. That’s 35 days of lost maintenance, planning and preparation for the busy upcoming spring and summer and fall leaf season.
At a gathering in Blowing Rock late last year, Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation President and CEO Carolyn Ward noted that nearly 40 percent of Parkway staff positions were vacant, and that personnel money has been dropping for decades.
To put it bluntly, that’s throwing sand in one of the most important economic engines in the mountains. A 2017 NPS report showed Parkway visitors spent nearly $1 billion in nearby communities, supporting 15,649 jobs.
If those visitors have an unpleasant experience due to dirty facilities, crumbling roads or unsafe trails, they won’t come back. And those local dollars and jobs won’t either.
So, here’s to Sen. Burr and a major victory. But here’s hoping it can be followed up with a long-term plan to promote the health of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.