If you find yourself in a hole...

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Published: 
Wednesday, July 29, 2015

...the first thing to do is stop digging.

Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of faungg's photos.
Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. Photo © faungg's photos

If your father was a Will Rogers fan like mine, you might be familiar with this one-liner wisdom. It’s a simple truth: Rarely do we improve a bad situation by repeating past mistakes.

Consider the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the federal government’s primary source of funding for land acquisitions, which is set to expire later this year.

Enacted in 1964, the LWCF is authorized at $900 million per year, with the vast majority of revenues coming from oil and gas leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf. Through the appropriations process, these funds are used to acquire federal lands and to make grants to states for recreational planning, facilities, and state land acquisitions. In total, since enacting the LWCF, Congress has allocated more than $10 billion to expand the federal estate. 

As you might imagine, the LWCF is popular among outdoor recreationists, particularly those who frequent public lands. Calls for reauthorization echo from major conservation organizations to the state and federal agencies that use LWCF funds to expand their jurisdiction.

You might be wondering who would oppose such a law and on what basis. Answer: PERC, and with clear evidence that the federal government is not adequately maintaining the land it already owns.

In recent hearings on LWCF reauthorization, PERC scholars advised Congress to stop acquiring land that the federal government cannot effectively manage. First up was Shawn Regan who provided the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands with example after example of the National Park Service’s enormous deferred maintenance backlog. The most egregious was Shawn’s description of Yosemite’s deteriorating water distribution system leaking thousands of gallons of chlorinated water each day in the Mariposa Grove, threatening the park’s ancient stands of giant sequoias. True story.

Unfortunately, the failing infrastructure in Yosemite is not unique. Across the 635 million acres of land owned by the federal government, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have accumulated a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $20 billion.

Next up, I testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and likened the federal estate to a dilapidated house with a crumbling driveway, leaking roof, and burst pipes—the owner of which is seeking financing for a new addition. Rather than using the LWCF to acquire more lands and stretch the already-too-thin maintenance budgets over additional acres, both Shawn and I urged Congress to get its house in order. 

Cold water, anyone?

PERC’s perspective gained more attention last month when Scott Wilson and I described the federal lands maintenance issue in an op-ed for the New York Times. We also offered a market-based solution: user fees. Expanding the authority of federal land managers to set, charge, and retain user fees would provide those managers with a funding source for maintenance—one that depends on visitation rates, not congressional appropriations.

PERC scholars have never been afraid to take a contrarian position. Indeed, we relish the role. But we recognize that the line between persuasive contrarianism and perceived lunacy is a fine one, the primary difference being evidence.

It is for this reason that we prioritize research over all else at PERC. Our publications, outreach materials, educational and applied programs are all very important. But what distinguishes PERC from the crowd is our research and our commitment to let the data speak.

In the case of federal lands, particularly our national parks, the evidence is clear: We can do better. This particular issue of PERC Reports showcases ideas for how we can do better, how we can enhance the environmental and economic performance of our national parks by harnessing the power of private enterprise and economic incentives. That way, our federal land agencies can finally stop digging and trade the shovel for the ladder.

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Reed Watson is the executive director at PERC. His research focuses on the implementation of market-based solutions to natural resource conflicts focusing particularly on public lands, water, and wildlife issues. With Terry Anderson and Brandon Scarborough, he co-authored Tapping Water Markets (RFF Press, 2012).Watson holds a J.D. and M.A. in...
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