If the federal government had shut down this weekend, many outdoor enthusiasts would have been bereft, as the National Parks Service would have ceased operations at midnight on Friday. A shutdown would close the gates at the countless National Parks, including Yosemite, the Everglades, and Yellowstone. The potential for a wilderness-lockout begs the question: why is the federal government managing these parks in the first place?
Four government agencies manage the majority of federal lands (which occupy a full one-third of the surface area of the United States, by the way): the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service. It’s tempting to believe that government management of public lands is the best, most secure method for conservation, but in reality, land stewardship and federal bureaucracy do not an environmentalist’s dream-team make. The Bureau of Land Management alone, responsible for over 500 million acres of public land, estimated a deferred maintenance backlog of between $13.5 billion and $19.9 billion for fiscal 2010 (and, knowing the GAO’s penchant for overly-optimistic numbers, I’d bet on the $19.9 billion). Such a backlog should outrage nature-lovers – deferred maintenance often results in severe environmental degradation (think overflowing sewers, overly dense and decaying forests more prone to wildfires, and crumbling roads and paths, just to name a few).
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), begun in 1964, is the federal government’s primary land acquisition program. It sets aside $900 million every year for the government to purchase more land and is unquestionably lauded by green-spending-happy President Obama:
To help set aside land for conservation and to promote recreation, we’re proposing to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, for only the third time in our history. (Applause.) And we’re intending to pay for it with existing oil and gas revenues, because our attitude is if you take something out of the Earth, you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the Earth. (Applause.) So these are the right steps to take for our environment. But they’re also the right steps to take for our country. They help spur the economy. They create jobs by putting more Americans back to work in tourism and recreation.
The LWCF provides politicians with ample opportunity to smile for the cameras while cutting ribbons in front of brand new parks, but it does not provide money for the perpetual conservation of the lands it purchases. It is amazingly irresponsible to buy more public land when the federal estate is already a poorly-managed, environmentally-degrading contributor to the exploding national deficit (which definitely does not help create jobs, no matter what President Obama might say).
Open public recreational access sounds appealing and is an easy sell politically, but anyone who actually cares about preserving the American landscape would be wise in favoring a more privatized system. For a nominal fee, the country’s most visited national parks could be operationally self-sufficient, economically viable, and free from top-down regulatory hindrance. The billions of taxpayer dollars wasted on public land acquisition and management may seem small in the larger context of a pending fiscal meltdown, but we can little afford to leave any budgetary stone unturned.