Congress Let the Land and Water Conservation Fund Die—and the National Parks Could Pay the Price
The closure of one of Zion's most popular trails is a preview of what's in store for U.S. national parks if the public lands funding program isn't renewed.
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Located in northeastern Zion National Park, The Narrows is one of the most popular trails in one of America’s most popular outdoor destinations. Every year, thousands of hikers lace up their boots and pick up Zion-branded hiking sticks to wade up the Virgin River, trekking past thousand-foot walls in a canyon that sometimes narrows to as little as 20 feet wide.
The real bucket-list catch, however, lies downstream. Every day, 90 hikers get a permit to hike the 16 miles from the top of the canyon; just 40 score permission to sleep overnight at campsites squeezed between the river and the sandstone.
But over a recent peak-season September weekend, hikers noticed a few new—and troubling—signs in the canyon: “Permission to Pass Subject to Trespassing Fee,” “For Sale By Owner. Own Over 1 Mile of the Zion Narrows,” and “880 Acres with Water and Resort Potential.”
It sounded like a prank, but the signs were very real. Though hikers have been allowed through for more than 40 years, that portion of the trail, known as Simon Gulch, is privately owned. And the landowner, Scott Bulloch, does want to sell—to the national park. When a deal that had been in the works for three years recently stalled out, he posted the signs in frustration.
“We felt we need to post the signs to get the government’s attention that this is an important piece of property,” Bulloch told The Salt Lake Tribune. “They seem to ignore the value of that. We think it has the same value as the park itself.”
He told the Tribune the sale bogged down over whether to appraise the land as too rugged for development or ranching—and therefore cheap—or at the rate often nominally applied to national treasures: priceless.
In a striking bit of coincidence, Bulloch made his headline-grabbing move a week before the Land and Water Conservation Fund expired. The fund, which until recently enjoyed bipartisan support, uses revenue from offshore oil and gas development to conserve and improve public lands. It has built trails, city green spaces, and whitewater play parks, but chief among the 52-year old fund’s achievements has been purchasing land to preserve its wild qualities, often aiming for pockets of private land left inside national parks, including Simon Gulch. A grant had been set aside for a conservation easement on those 880 acres, securing public access.
More than 3,000 acres inside Zion National Park are privately owned, some of which date to the area’s designation as Mukuntuweap (the Southern Paiute name for the area) National Monument in 1909. Those inholdings cover other iconic spots in the park, including access for Orderville and Parunuweap canyons. Lest hikers think they’re safe, at least one has already been made into a vacation home: Landowners Hank and Mariangela Pino Landau built a luxury house overlooking Tabernacle Dome.
Similar issues riddle national parks across the country. Additionally, across the West, 9.52 million acres of publicly owned land are “landlocked” by private owners, according to a study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has already unlocked more than 5 million acres.
“It’s not to say that the Narrows project is related to expiration, but it shows that these are already fraught with hurdles and places that can easily trip up these projects,” says Jonathan Asher, government relations senior representative with The Wilderness Society. “Adding more uncertainty from expiration or fluctuating annual appropriations doesn’t do anybody any favors and only causes more challenge, more consternation, more problems in being able to bring multi-party stakeholders to the table and actually get these deals across the finish line.”
Those delays, he adds, leave time for properties to be purchased by other entities and developed as trophy homes, hotels, zip lines, or something else equally out of touch with the experience national parks aim to provide.
The Trust for Public Land has been brokering the sale for Simon Gulch, though the U.S. Forest Service is administering the grant provided. The state of Utah has also committed funds.
Jim Petterson, Southwest program director for the Trust, says he’s confident the Simon Gulch sale will move forward.
“We remain committed to it,” he says. “The National Forest review process is just taking a little longer than expected.”
In 2003, the Trust for Public Land also paid $1.41 million to preserve public access to the Narrows through Chamberlain Ranch.
“We want to keep these parks intact so the visitors of tomorrow have a similar experience as today,” Petterson says. “Parks should definitely be about majesty, not about money.”
After a closure of less than a week, Washington County and the landowner worked out a temporary recreational access license effective to the end of 2018 and Zion National Park resumed issuing permits.
“We greatly appreciate the goodwill of the landowners and the efforts of the Washington County Commission in quickly resolving access concerns at the entrance to the Virgin River Narrows,” Jeff Bradybaugh, superintendent of Zion National Park, said in a press statement.
Reinstating the Land and Water Conservation Fund is taking much longer. Meanwhile, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, an umbrella group of over a thousand public land stakeholders, is tracking money lost since the program’s expiration. Within 24 hours, the fund was down more than $1.5 million.
On Oct. 2, the Senate energy and natural resources committee made the landmark move of approving a bill that would permanently reauthorize the fund and mandate it receive the full $900 million its allowed. Only once before has the fund been granted all the money the law says it could receive.
Legislators will have just a few weeks between the November elections and the holiday recess to approve the bill. While there’s generally broad and bipartisan support for the fund, this Congress tends to pass legislation in bulk, so there’s concern it could be packaged with a “poison pill,” like legislation to fast-track logging in the Tongass National Forest, that could delay its renewal, Asher explains. If it isn’t passed before a new Congress begins in January, he adds, lawmakers will have to start over.
Despite the news stories about the impact of private landowners on the Narrows trail, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to amend the legislation reinstating the Land and Water Conservation Fund to limit its application to inholdings like those in Zion.
“The plan in many respects has drifted far from its original intent and it’s in need of some significant reform,” Lee said before introducing an amendment that would require the fund to prioritize maintenance over land purchases. He pointed to the $18.62 billion maintenance backlog, nearly $12 billion of it for national parks.
“I have an economy that is a juggernaut because of the outdoors,” countered Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who sponsored the bill. “The outdoors is why software companies locate here, it’s why we attract the best engineers, it is why people move here and retire. So I want both.”
If the legislation does pass, it will face one final obstacle: President Trump. His annual budget has repeatedly suggested zeroing the fund out, notes Kathy DeCoster vice president and director of federal affairs for the Trust for Public Land. Without it, landowners like the one who owns a piece of the Narrows—and believes the public should buy what he has to sell—would be left with few options.
“There really isn’t another funding source like the Land and Water Conservation Fund whose purpose is to ensure outdoor recreation for all Americans, from the city park all the way to a national park like Zion,” DeCoster says. “What it exists for is to make sure our public lands are accessible and some of the key resources are protected in perpetuity for the American people. So I know there will be more examples like Simon Gulch going forward. We just don’t know where they are until the landowner decides.”