California's National Parks Could Be Getting Millions In Much Needed Help

A hiker atop a boulder in Joshua Tree (Via Unsplash)

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On Wednesday, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, one of the biggest conservation bills since World War II, which allocates substantial money to the upkeep and expansion of public natural areas across the country, including California.

The bill is sweeping in scope, but can be broken down into two major sections:

  • $900 million guaranteed per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to be used to expand natural areas for recreation, or preserve wildlife and habitats. It could also fund the purchase of land for parks in cities.
  • $9.5 billion over five years to fix up our National Parks System, which requires much-needed repairs to existing infrastructure, like roads, restrooms, and sewage systems, to name just a few.

Called "a conservationist's dream" by the National Parks Conservation Association, the bill seems to promise major changes, but what does that mean specifically for California?

NATIONAL PARKS NEED HELP

Natural space is clearly important to us, and those that come to visit. In 2019 about 40 million people ventured through National Parks located in the Golden State, spending an estimated $2.7 billion in their surrounding areas.

Still, upkeep of these hallowed grounds have been a major issue for years.

"It's really a game changer for the National Parks Service. It'll enable them to go from a Band-Aid approach really to modern day fixes for their repairs," said Marcia Argust, who heads the Restore America's Parks program at the Pew Charitable trust.

Our park system is over 100 years old, meaning facilities and infrastructure are deteriorating. Upkeep has been made difficult by sporadic year-to-year funding, which forced plenty of parks to defer maintenance, even as more and more people show up to use those spots.

Nationally, parks have a backlog of about $12 billion in maintenance, according to the National Park Service.


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JOSHUA TREE, DEATH VALLEY AND YOSEMITE

California favorites aren't immune.

Joshua Tree is in need of about $73 million in fixes and improvements, primarily for roads and buildings.

(Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Death Valley also needs an estimated $167 million for the improvement of roads and buildings, but also water distribution and wastewater collection systems.

Further north, Yosemite is in need of $923 million, much of which could go to the rehabilitation of Tuolumne Meadows, and the replacement of a wastewater treatment plant.

MUCH NEEDED HELP FOR COMMUNITIES

If the bill is signed into law by President Trump, the Park Service has 90 days to give Congress a list of projects individual parks plan to work on in their first year of funding. That money should start flowing in October, according to Argust.

In addition to fixing crumbling infrastructure for visitors, the money could help buoy communities that have seen their tourism drop during the pandemic, and potentially create a lot of jobs.

It's not just the National Parks that'll benefit from the funding. The U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education could receive billions over the five years as well.

MORE LAND COULD BE MADE PUBLIC

The other portion of the bill that could impact us in SoCal is the guaranteed $900 million per year allocated towards the Land and Water Conservation fund. This could be used by federal and state governments to purchase and develop public land, protect endangered habitats and species, or even build parks in cities.

"I'm pinching myself. It's a great day," said Mark Kramer, director of federal external affairs for the Nature Conservancy.

"In California, we have such a varied topography that there's always opportunity to make strategic additions to our public lands, whether it's in the desert or along our coast."

Take the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area as an example. In theory, the LWCF funding could be used to buy up additional plots throughout the coastal mountains to prevent further building, and preserve the area for recreation as the risk of wildfires increases (though some may bristle at the government acquiring more land than it already has).

"We've missed opportunities in the past to protect some of these places because the funding wasn't reliable. Now we'll have it," said Kramer, referring to how, in the past, Congress would often take money from the fund for unrelated projects, after its establishment in 1964.

Conservationists see this law as a big step towards guaranteeing funding.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the acquisition of 2,210 acres in Mojave National Preserve is considered high priority.

Primary funding doesn't come from taxes, but from income from government leases to energy producers — primarily oil and gas. Consumption of those fuels is a major contributor to climate change, the very thing which is destroying the ecosystems people are excited to go enjoy.