In 1965, the United States Congress enacted the Land and Water Conservation Act, which has since become some of the most effective conservation legislation to date; in 2015, the Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources let it die.
The program authorized Congress to allocate up to $900 million of royalties from the oil and gas industry toward funding U.S. national parks each year. The government receives $2.5 million a day from the industry, which adds up to just over $910 million each year.
However, our representatives typically only appropriate about $200 million a year from this fund to national parks, which has resulted in billions of dollars being sent into the void of unappropriated Congressional funds over the last fifty years.
The day after the Land and Water Conservation Act expired, 100 national parks increased their entry fees, while 176 will increase additional fees — such as for tours and campground rentals. National Parks director Jonathan Jarvis claims this is because of an $11.5 billion deficit in the budget — perhaps due to the years of underendowment and budget cuts from the legislature.
The Congressperson responsible for the expiration of this successful (if underappreciated) program is Representative Rob Bishop of Utah’s 1st District.
According to a column written by Bishop, his reasoning is that overwhelming maintenance backlogs have made it difficult for the Bureau of Land Management to properly care for the parks. Therefore, he has determined it necessary to kill and reform the program — rather than to provide the full amount of funding he and his fellow legislators are authorized to give.
Bishop addressed a qualm he has with the amount of land the U.S. government has purchased for parks and preserves. According to the representative, more land should be used for commercial and agricultural purposes, rather than for the preservation of our quickly disappearing ecosystem.
Much of the funds from the Land and Water Conservation Act budget go toward the purchase of privately owned pieces of land within our national parks, called inholdings. Now that the legislation has expired, the U.S. government has no way to purchase inholdings, leaving these plots of land open to commercial and residential development.
Privately owned developments have popped up in our national parks before, but we just lost our best method for keeping them under control.
Bishop’s motivations for killing this program aren’t entirely clear, as he has yet to issue a reform bill — however, a thoughtful realist might look toward Bishop’s campaign financiers for clues.
Among the Congressperson’s top contributors are Exxon and Chevron — two of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. One might question whether they stand to gain from removing oil and gas industry royalties from the national parks fund. Similar contributors include the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a lobbying group for energy companies, and the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, who represent companies that tear down forests for profit.
Though the legislative branch apparently cannot be trusted to protect our national parks, we can call on the executive branch to step in and do something meaningful. Hopefully the President and his Cabinet will recognize the gravity of this situation, and not make the same mistake they did with the Arctic.