The Next Funding Crises: Public Lands

Signal Group

Signal’s Managing Director Charles Cooper, Executive Vice President Blake Androff, and Vice President Madeline Wade write about the funding shortfalls facing America’s public lands, and offer a bipartisan solution that addresses the problem effectively.

For years, policymakers have highlighted the looming crises surrounding Social Security – starting in 2020, the government will access trust funds for the first since the program was created in order to pay Social Security benefits.  Those trust funds are on a collision course to be depleted in 15 years.  While Social Security may be the most often debated funding shortfall, it certainly isn’t the only one.  Medicare’s Hospital Insurance trust fund (which funds insurance for people 65 and over) faces a shortfall by 2026 and the Highway Trust Fund (which funds surface transportation infrastructure) faces a shortfall in 2021.  As these shortfalls near and begin to grow, their solutions become more complicated, expensive, and uncertain.  The same is true for the shortfall facing public lands, which is a lesser known fiscal threat, but one that suffers from the same lack of attention and urgency as all the others.

The maintenance backlog for national forests and national parks is now close to $18 billion and that figure continues to grow every year.  Aging infrastructure and limited resources impact the ability to provide needed services – from trail maintenance to building maintenance – for hundreds of millions of visitors each year.  The backlog impacts the visitor experience and adds to an always growing list of expensive projects federal land managers need to address.  It also jeopardizes safety and security, and threatens local economies that rely on these visitors.

Like transportation infrastructure ignored on our roads and bridges, infrastructure that is ignored on public lands often becomes more expensive to fix and even more expensive to maintain.  The opportunity costs to those who rely on public lands for outdoor recreation (including the outdoor recreation economy that is now a $778 billion annual industry – or roughly 2.2% of the nation’s GDP – almost as big as pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles and motor-vehicle parts combined) are enormous.

Unfortunately, a lack of funding stands in the way – a similar story told among Social Security, Medicare, and transportation policy circles.  Where public lands differs, however, is that an innovative, bipartisan, and bicameral policy solution exists and is moving in the right direction.

The Restore our Parks Act and the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act will use funding from energy resources on public lands to fund the maintenance backlog.  This innovative financing solution has broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.  It’s also one of the rare pieces of legislation that has the support of progressive Democrats, conservative Republicans and the White House.

It’s one of the long-time flaws of our legislative branch that preventing a crisis is not the norm and responding to a crisis is.  When it comes to our public lands, we shouldn’t wait any longer to resolve the crises and we should do so through an innovative solution that provides both a near-term fix and a long-term solution, which is clearly outlined in the legislation the House and Senate is now considering.