Summer is almost here which means the start of traditional family vacations, but in much of the country, wet weather and terrible storms have been the order of the day. Unfortunately, many Americans are picking up the pieces from devastating floods and tornados. For them, the summer of 2019 will be a time of trying to put their lives back together. We are very mindful of the challenges that lie ahead for these families.
Transportation Infrastructure Reform on Life Support
Given all the rebuilding that must take place in many communities hit by these terrible storms, there is another issue that needs addressing and that is rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure. Talks between President Trump and Congressional Democrats are stalled at best, and at this juncture there appears to be no pathway forward in reaching a consensus on how to pay for an infrastructure program that could cost upwards to $2 trillion. One suggestion is to increase the federal excise tax on fuel since the last increase took place 26 years ago. But given that the 2020 elections are approaching, there seems little chance of that happening.
Meanwhile, the authorization for existing federal transportation programs will expire in about 490 days. Legislation reauthorizing these programs is considered as “must pass” legislation because without an extension, all federal transportation programs would be frozen. Many transportation proponents had hoped that the infrastructure program and transportation reauthorization could be combined into one legislative vehicle to enhance passage of both. For now, that possibility appears dead, though we can continue to hope.
All this leads us to the needed reauthorization of the Recreational Trails Program, (RTP). RTP must be a part of the transportation reauthorization legislation. If not, the program will expire which would be devastating to outdoor recreation. We know that RTP will not be reauthorized without a lot of hard work on our part.
We will soon launch a grassroots effort to drum up congressional support for reauthorizing RTP. You will be receiving an ARRA alert in the coming days on this issue. We hope you will utilize this means of notifying your Representative and Senators of your strong support for this program. Stay tuned…
Recreation Funding on the Decline
The Property and Environment Research Center out of Bozeman, Montana just released a comprehensive study on federal funding for recreation. The results were depressing, to say the least. It is something we had suspected, but having the hard facts really tells the story.
For the Bureau of Land Management, funding for recreation via federal appropriations, after adjusting for inflation, has fallen 16 percent since 2001. Meanwhile, the deferred maintenance backlog has grown by 65 percent over the last decade to a whopping $810 million.
The Forest Service hasn’t fared any better. It’s deferred maintenance backlog now stands at nearly $5.5 billion and of that amount, $279 million is for unfunded trail repairs. The agency had more than 149 million recreation visits in 2016. The agency’s budget category for recreation which also includes heritage sites and wilderness, has seen a decrease of 23 percent, after adjusting for inflation, since 2001.
In short, this financial picture is not sustainable for our federal land agencies. More and more Americans are accessing federal lands for recreation, including motorized recreation, and the federal land managers have fewer financial resources available to do the work they need to do. Something has got to change.
DOI Reorganization in Trouble
Plans to relocate the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from Washington to somewhere west of the Mississippi took a serious hit in the House Appropriations Committee. In May the committee completed its work on the FY 2020 appropriations for the Department of the Interior (DOI) and made it clear that it would not be providing the necessary funds to facilitate the BLM headquarters’ move. Committee members complained that details about the reorganization were fuzzy at best and without more clarity, at least the House of Representatives would not be supporting the move. Similar expressions of concern are beginning to be heard on the Senate side of the Capitol but without the absolute terms as expressed by the House Appropriations Committee.
New Recreation Opportunities, Lower Blackfoot River Region
In the May newsletter, I wrote about efforts in Congress to make permanent the funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, (LWCF), to the tune of $900 million per year and that we opposed to this idea until the existing fund is modified so that some of the LWCF revenue can go towards the huge maintenance backlog for the federal land agencies, as we just referenced during our discussion about the decline in federal spending for recreation. It has never made sense to us that the federal government should acquire more land when it can’t take care of what it already owns.
Well, just a few days ago, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced that the Bureau of Land Management is working to acquire 13,000 acres of private lands in Montana’s Lower Blackfoot River region. The first 4,900 acres would be acquired by late fall of this year with LWCF funds. This expansion would allow for new recreation opportunities for fishing, hiking, hunting, mountain biking and snowmobiling. There is a little irony in all of this. It’s rather hard for us to oppose this land acquisition when motorized recreation stands to become a beneficiary!
So, I guess we are reluctantly pleased with this news especially for our friends in the snowmobile community, but we still believe that LWCF’s mission needs to be expanded to include funding for deferred maintenance. There must be a balance somewhere. Tackling the maintenance backlog would be a good place to start.
Enjoy your time with your family this summer and hopefully you will spend part of that time in the great outdoors. While doing so, whether its camping with the family, fishing or enjoying motorized recreation, pause and think of those who are busy trying to rebuild their lives and homes after a very difficult spring weather season.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)