NWA editorial: Drilling for money

Westerman seeks funding for park lands maintenance

It's way too early to know whether H.R. 5170 by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman will become a piece of legislation worth supporting, but the argument the Hot Springs congressman makes for its need makes sense.

Westerman a week ago introduced the Federal Lands Investment Partnership Act. As all congressmen want their bills to draw attention and be remembered, titles always get shortened, and this one will be referred to as the FLIP Act.

What’s the point?

A bill that seeks to shift money toward maintenance of national parks and other federal site is worth keeping an eye on.

We certainly give a flip about public lands belonging to the American people and entrusted to the care of our federal government. As valuable as it is to remain mindful of the availability of unique lands worth of federal protection, there's also something to be said for taking care of the land we've got. And we, as a nation, are not getting it done.

As of last September, the bill for deferred maintenance on federal lands, according to the National Park Service, totaled $11.6 billion. In Arkansas, national park sites like Pea Ridge National Military Park, Hot Springs National Park, For Smith National Historic Site, the Buffalo National River and the Central High School National Historic Site have ginned up a deferred maintenance bill of $37.6 million.

Deferred maintenance generally refers to work that's needed but which cannot be afforded under current spending. As a nation, we all love the idea of keeping these special places in great condition so the traveling public can witness their splendor or come to a greater understanding of their history. But paying to keep them in good shape? Our federal government has come up short time and time again.

Westerman's notion is to modify a piece of legislation that created the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in the mid-60s in part to create a funding resource for the nation's recreation areas and facilities. The conservation fund invests earnings from offshore oil and gas leases, but Westerman believes the use of that money -- to acquire lands and waters -- is too limited.

His bill would ensure states get 25 percent of the fund's appropriations and allocate 40 percent to federal programs, with 75 percent of that directed to deferred maintenance projects, infrastructure projects, clean ups and more.

So what could be wrong with focusing money where it's needed?

The legislation is barely formed, but according to Westerman's description, there is one part that may give advocates for the land some heartburn. His bill would direct 15 percent of the conservation funding to promote "offshore energy exploration, innovation and education," including a pilot program "to improve federal permit coordination on the outer confinement shelf."

It will be tough for some advocates of preserving natural areas for future generations to stomach a measure that promotes more offshore oil and gas exploration, but for years that has provided funding for acquisition of park lands.

Westerman's bill went immediately to three committees, so it will probably creep along at Washington, D.C., pace. It's worth more study to see what trade-offs there are and whether the national parks system gets enough benefit to outweigh any shortcomings.

Commentary on 03/13/2018

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