Zion National Park was recently given an important gift, a 30-acre inholding private property that is completely surrounded by park land that was purchased and will be donated to the National Park Service thanks to a financial gift from an anonymous benefactor.
Had this piece of land not been secured, it could have been sold to a private landowner who would have potentially built one or more trophy mansions there, spoiling the scenic and pristine beauty that draws nearly 3 million visitors to the park each year. There are plenty of scenic locations available in Utah for private homes, but inside a national park, especially one as prized for its unique beauty as Zion, should not be one.
Unfortunately, this single action does not save Zion, or dozens of other national parks both in Utah and across the nation, from this type of inappropriate development. Already, expanded developments and at least one trophy home have been built on inholdings inside Zion and there is risk for more, as other landowners look to liquidate their private holdings inside the park.
Preventing these properties from being purchased by developers more interested in cashing in on the location than preserving the larger integrity of places like Zion was a primary reason the Land and Water Conservation Fund was first created by Congress in 1965.
The LWCF was a bipartisan commitment to set aside $900 million each year from offshore oil and gas drilling revenues a fraction of the royalties collected to invest in land and water conservation. Specifically, the fund is used to purchase land to protect national parks and other public lands from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects.
These purchases, which are made at market prices from willing sellers, preserve the beauty and integrity of national parks and other treasured publicly owned places, which in turn allow these places to attract the maximum number of visitors and power local and state economies.
These purchases can ensure public access, facilitate or improve recreational opportunities, reduce threats from invasive species and fire, and otherwise act as a critical tool for land protection.
But for years Congress has diverted the funds that were designated for LWCF purchases for other uses, leaving the integrity and sustained beauty of national parks in jeopardy. Due to this lack of funding, the National Park Service is not able to purchase enough lands from sellers to protect the nearly 12,000 privately owned inholdings inside national park units across the country.
And while there are some people out there, like the donor of the Zion land, who are able to help with specific pieces of property, there are nowhere near enough to protect all of the properties in danger of being developed into luxury homes or other developments.
As the National Park System nears its 100th anniversary in 2016, it is an ideal time to restore the parks to their peak glory and to make sure they have the tools and funding in place to preserve them for generations of Americans to come. This means making sure there are enough LWCF funds to secure some of the many properties that are endangered.
In the nearly 50 years since LWCF was established, Congress has only fully funded it at $900 million a single time and in the past 10 years Congress dedicated less than 30 percent of the dollars promised to federal and state land acquisition while diverting $6.36 billion for other purposes. All of this is despite 88 percent of the American public supporting the use of LWCF funds to preserve our national parks, forests and open spaces.
In the 2013 budget, the Obama administration proposed LWCF funding at $450 million while the U.S. House of Representatives proposed only $66 million in its budget which, if approved, would be the lowest level in the history of LWCF.
While we pause to celebrate the power of one generous person to make a tangible difference when it is needed most, we know it will take a commitment of Congress to adequately fund LWCF to really address the risks posed by private development inside our national parks.
You can help too. Contact your senators and representatives to ask them to support robust funding for LWCF and continued investments in our most treasured places and economic engines, the national parks.
Cory MacNulty is program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, Southwest Region.