The Great Park Swindle: Billions Slated for Conservation Not Spent

It seemed a matter of common sense that proceeds from the sale of natural resources taken from public lands should be used to acquire and preserve public property for future generations. Such was the attitude in 1964, when Congress ratified the Land and Water Conservation Act, which diverts royalties from offshore oil drilling into a special fund intended for federal, state and local land acquisition, conservation and recreational projects.The annual $900 million authorization was seen as a strong Congressional commitment to honor the public desire for open-space preservation. But the nation's leaders began to renege almost immediately. Since the bill became law 32 years ago, more than $12 billion-nearly 60 percent-of the money destined for conservation has been diverted by U.S. presidents and members of Congress for non-conservation purposes.Never has Congress allocated the full amount authorized by the act. In recent years, legislators have increasingly raided the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to reduce the deficit. The raid is done without public debate. Yearly LWCF spending has steadily deteriorated and Congress alloacted a paltry $100 million for fiscal 1997. The states, which originally received about half of the money, have gotten increasingly smaller portions, and now receive nothing at all. Left strapped, local and state agencies and national environmental leaders are organizing a nationwide grass-roots effort to restore the LWCF.AUTHOR'S NOTES: This version of the story is designed for California readers, but it can easily be localized to any state, city and county with a little research. Lists of local projects funded by the LWCF are easily obtained and can give the story a strong local impact in most communities.IMAGES: Key players include California Parks and Recreation Director Don Murphy, US Representative Sam Farr, Liz Bousard of the Wilderness Society (Wash., DC), and Steve Blackmer of the Appalachian Mountain Club (Bousard and Blackmer are not mentioned in this draft, but papers on the East Coast may want to interview them to localize the story). Images from any local LWCF-funded park or recreational facility will also be effective-we are using these for our story, in fact.ARTICLE BODY: It seemed a matter of common sense that proceeds from the sale of natural resources taken from public lands should be used to acquire and preserve public property for future generations. Such was the attitude in 1964 as Congress ratified the Land and Water Conservation Act, which diverts royalties from offshore oil drilling into a special fund intended for federal, state and local land acquisition, conservation and recreational projects.The authorization of $900 million per year was seen as a strong commitment by Congress to honor the public desire for open-space preservation. Unfortunately, even as the ink dried on the act's signature page, the nation's leaders were beginning to renege on the bargain. Since the bill became law 32 years ago, more than $12 billion-nearly 60 percent-of the money destined for conservation has been diverted by U.S. presidents and members of Congress for non-conservation purposes. Never, during any fiscal year, has Congress allocated the full amount authorized by the act, coming close only during the Carter Administration in the late 1970s. In recent years, legislators have increasingly raided the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in order to reduce the deficit. The raid is done stealthily and without public debate. The president and members of Congress simply fail to allocate the money in federal spending bills, thereby freeing it for general use. Yearly LWCF spending over the past four years has been about $181 million, on average, and Congress appropriated a paltry $100 million for fiscal 1997. The states, which originally received about half of the money, have gotten an increasingly smaller share, and now receive nothing. What does this mean for local communities?In Santa Cruz County, more than $2 million in LWCF money was spent acquiring Big Basin State Park, and LWCF funds contributed substantially to land acquisitions for Twin Lakes Beach, Moran Lake, Forest of Nisene Marks, Saratoga Summit, and Castle Rock State Park. Money from the fund also helped to develop Harvey West Park, Neary Lagoon Park, Mission Plaza Park, Frederick Street Park, Santa Cruz and Capitola piers, and to provide public access to Greyhound Rock. In Watsonville, Ramsay Park, Pinto Lake, and the E.A. Hall School Park benefited from the fund. In all, projects in Santa Cruz County have received around $5.2 million since 1969. However, more than 80 percent of this money was allocated during the 1970s and 1980s. The 90s brought a funding drought. "The fact these funds were available has provided county residents with some really great facilities," says Barry Samuel, director of the Santa Cruz County Department of Parks, Open Space and Cultural Services. "I think it's more important than ever, as local dollars become tighter and park infrastructure is getting older, that this money remains available. We need all the help we can get."LWCF'S HISTORYWhile the Reagan and Bush administrations were instrumental in diverting LWCF funds away from conservation, President Clinton has failed to provide the leadership needed to reverse the trend.The LWCF was first administered in 1965 by an office called the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, created by the act for that purpose. The money was split approximately evenly between the states and the federal government. The federal money went to the Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Department, and the National Park Service. Of the state portion, 60 percent went to local entities, with the remainder being given to state agencies for state conservation projects. (In California these agencies were Parks and Recreation, the Wildlife Conservation Board, Water Resources, and Boating and Waterways). In 1981, however, the Reagan administration and then-Interior Secretary James Watt abolished the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and transferred the duty of allocating LWCF money to the National Park Service. Soon after, money for the states began to dry up.Between 1965 through 1981, California received an average of $10.1 million in LWCF funds annually. The money has since dwindled to an average of about $2.5 million per year. Last fiscal year, California, along with the other states, got nothing, and will get nothing in fiscal 1997. "Federal projects, mostly new national parks, were high profile affairs from which legislators could get tremendous recognition," says California Parks and Recreation Director Don Murphy, explaining the change in funding distribution during the 1980s. "They went for the glamorous projects rather then the [smaller local ones]." According to Michael Fisher, director of the California Coastal Conservancy, the president shares the blame. "They figured they could sequester a lot of money and mask the size of the deficit with this fund," Fisher says. "Unlike other trust funds like Medicare and the Highway Trust Fund, the constituents served by the LWCF are too nice. If you tried to sequester Medicare, you'd get butchered."Central Coast Representative Sam Farr, who is fighting for restoration of the LWCF, notes that the fund doesn't have as strong a legal standing as funds like the Highway Trust. But Farr adds that the failure by Congress to allocate the money is like "a business not investing in its own product. "Congress has just been very stingy about that fund," says Farr. "Both Democrats and Republicans have been remiss. I see $900 million sitting in the bank with Congress unwilling to appropriate it, and we need local people to stand up and say, "That money is ours!"It is rare for high-level bureaucrats to bite the hand that feeds them, hence the lack of outcry in the past, but with the LWCF funds cut off, and other state conservation funding sources virtually dried up, officials are now rolling up their sleeves and speaking out. "This is really an abandonment of our commitment to preserving our natural and cultural resources that we made 30 years ago and it's being done with no public debate," says Murphy. "For Congress to cut off this money by not appropriating it, it's a cynical mission and I think it's dangerous for this country to be making this decision."Murphy, along with environmental leaders from the national Wilderness Society and Appalachian Mountain Club are organizing a broad coalition of local and national interests poised to gain from restoration of LWCF funding. The organizers are planning a summit with key leaders-including Farr-at the Asilomar Conference Center in January. This summit, they hope, will lead to further regional meetings and formation of a nationwide network of support that will have an impact on public policy. "We have tried to do this through special-interest lobbying, but now we are turning to local and national environmental groups, professional athletes, sportsman's clubs and local interests," Murphy says. "We're not going to get the attention of Congress unless the grass-roots constituencies start making noise about it."WELL RUNS DRYWith existing state conservation funds running on fumes, the LWCF money has taken special significance here. California's last successful parks bond issue-a $760 million voter initiative titled Prop. 70-happened in 1988. (The last legislative bond measure for open space was a $375 million issue sponsored by Farr in 1984).CALPAW (California Parks and Wildlife initiative), an unsuccessful $2 billion state ballot initiative would have paid for specific projects including land acquisitions, youth and senior programs, campgrounds, wetlands restoration, and trails and greenway maintenance. With the economy in a rut, however, state voters nixed CALPAW in 1994, leaving many state agencies and local governments up the proverbial creek.AB 1533, a recent attempt by San Jose Assemblyman Dominic Cortese to put a $495 million conservation bond measure on the state ballot in November, passed the state Senate on August 31, but failed in the Assembly by five votes.On the federal level, Farr introduced an amendment in June to a House appropriations bill that would have almost doubled the $125 million in LWCF funds proposed by Clinton for fiscal 1997. But Farr's amendment also failed, on a 183-235 vote, and a Republican-controlled appropriations committee cut the allocation further to $100 million. "The unspent $800 million goes to the budget committee to do something else with," says Alec Arago, Farr's legislative aide for environmental issues. Is it realistic for the public to expect Congress to spend the full $900 million each year on conservation? "Absolutely," Arago says.Fisher, of the Coastal Conservancy, which does not receive LWCF money, nonetheless considers the diversion of the funds from conservation as a betrayal. "The price of coastal property is never going to be cheaper and it will be even more valuable with population growth, so let's buy it now," he says. "By withholding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, you are imposing exponentially greater costs on future generations. Were they even cognizant of the short-sightedness of what we're doing now, they would be screaming at us in fury."SIDEBAR ONEWHAT SANTA CRUZ STANDS TO LOSE Project Year AmountTwin Lakes State Beach 1969 $131,325.00Santa Cruz Pier 1971 $117,292.81Big Basin State Park 1971-87 (10 grants) $2,094,717.00Ramsay Park 1972 $43,401.53Castle Rock State Park 1973-86 (8 grants) $1,096,111.70Neary's Lagoon Development 1975-85 (3 grants) $187,270.36Moran Lake Park 1975, 1978 $154,925.00Santa Cruz Fishing Pier 1976 $47,147.24Forest of Nisene Marks 1978 $167,741.60Capitola Fishing Pier 1980 $377,708.00Pinto Lake 1983 $99,168.72Harvey West Park 1984 $48,260.00E.A. Hall School Park 1984 $40,640.00Frederick Street Park 1986 $27,575.00Mission Plaza Park 1986 $41,873.00Greyhound Rock 1987 $61,200.00Big Basin Equestrian Center 1992 $163,199.00Saratoga Summit Gateway 1995 $317,500.00Total for Santa Cruz County 1969-199 $5,217,055.96

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