Picture this: You’re exploring a pristine backcountry area in a national park. You’ve been huffing up a ridge for some time and are eagerly anticipating the view. When you reach the top, you scan the sweeping valley below you … and see a cluster of houses. At first, you think you must have wandered outside the park boundaries. But after double-checking your map, you realize these houses are firmly inside the park.
Is this a futuristic worst-case scenario, or a very real possibility? Believe or not, private houses—and, in fact, large tracts of private land—exist within our national parks. Usually it’s the result of a park expanding its boundaries and encountering a landowner who isn’t ready to sell. So the park engulfs the private land, with the intention of buying it later.
Zion National Park includes a whopping 3,400 privately owned acres, which is a bit scary considering that this is one of our nation’s gems. This park preserves a stunning slice of southwestern Utah and offers outstanding outdoor adventures. You can wander for hours through the park’s seemingly endless slot canyons that carve the landscape into tiny veins amid towering rock walls. Massive sandstone cliffs rise thousands of feet from the desert floor, juxtaposing bright red rock against perfect blue sky.
Recently Zion faced a crisis when a private landowner was considering developing property within the park. The land in question happens to be a particularly choice parcel—a 30-acre chunk located at the base of Tabernacle Dome. And the park had no money to buy it.
Fortunately, supporters rallied around the cause. The Trust for Public Land and the National Parks Conservation Association banded together to find a private anonymous donor who forked over $825,000 to buy the land. Just last week they announced that the land will be gifted to the National Park Service.
Phew! Disaster averted. For now. But this threat will replay itself in other treasured places throughout the country as long as our national parks are strapped for cash. To make matters worse, a major source of funding for buying up private park land is dwindling.
I’m talking about the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which Congress created in 1965 to provide money to protect natural areas, waters and cultural resources. LWCF funding comes from royalties from offshore drilling, to the tune of $900 million annually—just a small percentage of the roughly $6 billion that comes from these royalties each year. Sounds like a nice chunk of change and a reasonable approach for protecting our nation’s irreplaceable resources, doesn’t it?
The problem is, the government routinely taps this money for other unspecified uses. In fact, this year Congress gave away almost two-thirds of it and allocated just $322 million to the LWCF (at one point they tried to shrink it to a mere $66 million). The National Park Service got a mere $57 million to buy private land within park boundaries across the country.
Of course, not every piece of private land in national parks is critical. But there are some—like the one in Zion—that are too precious to lose to development. The National Park Service has identified $2 billion worth of private land priorities. We need funding sources like the LWCF to protect our national treasures for their natural, recreation and economic benefits.
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This is where partners like the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and The Trust for Public Land are so important. NPCA is dedicated to protecting and enhancing America’s national parks. The Trust for Public Land helps agencies and communities preserve land for public use. Both of these groups can step in when a park is threatened and quick action is needed. They saved Zion this time around.
You can help, too. Urge your elected officials to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Donate money to nonprofit organizations like NPCA and The Trust for Public Land that are working to protect our nation’s parks. And help promote the value of these lands to our national economy. These irreplaceable resources are an invaluable part of our nation’s heritage and should be protected for the benefit of all Americans.