Denver’s Montbello Open Space Park sits in an industrial part of the city, near neat rows of beige buildings, a gas station and streets crammed with cars. Climbing boulders and the kids who play on them punctuate the 5-acre, sand-colored space. Someday, it will include native gardens and walking trails, too.
Though the park is modest now, its impact is important. Nearly 3,700 people in Denver can walk or bike to the park in 10 minutes or less. Before it existed, many of those people couldn’t easily access nature either because they didn’t live close to a park or didn’t have a vehicle, said Happy Haynes, executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation.
The city revamped the park in part using money from an extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a bipartisan program that invests a portion of revenue from offshore energy development into public lands and waters. The program—which can, in theory, distribute up to $900 million in royalties yearly—has funded more than 40,000 projects nationwide since 1965, according to the Department of Interior. But because the funding is discretionary, Congress has diverted, on average, between one-half and two-thirds of LWCF money throughout the program’s lifespan.
However, the Senate Wednesday passed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), a public lands package that, if signed into law, would make the full $900 million in funding permanent. Additionally, the package would earmark up to $9.5 billion to help address the more than $19 billion maintenance backlog on public lands, including national parks. It passed by a vote of 73-25.
Proponents of the package have said that this money, among other things, could help municipalities create more equitable access to green space by providing money to build or improve parks in places that lack them.
“The country keeps growing and the outdoor recreation economy keeps growing, and it’s been great, but it hasn’t been equitable, and it hasn’t been enough,” said Amy Lindholm, LWCF Coalition manager.
Research shows that people living in affluent majority-white municipalities have access to higher-quality park systems. That’s one of the reasons why the city chose to prioritize improvements at Montbello, where 21% of residents live below the poverty line and 90% of children qualify for the city’s free-and-reduced lunch program, Haynes said. More than 90% of people living there identify as individuals of color. The city plans to continue improving the park for residents by adding trails and gardens later this year.
“It’s like a little oasis in the middle of this industrial commercial zone next to a very high-needs neighborhood,” Haynes said.
In 2019, the same stateside extension of the LWCF, known as the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership program (ORLP), that funded Montbello also provided nearly $12 million to 18 urban projects throughout the U.S., according to the Trust for Public Land (TPL).
Though more than 90% of Denver residents live within 10 miles of a park, according to the TPL 2020 ParkScore report, Haynes said not all those parks are quality places to recreate, due to factors like a lack of maintenance or because they’ve become hot spots for illicit activity. The city has used funds from both LWCF and ORLP to improve its parks, acquire land and create play areas for kids.
“I think all of our LWCF funding has gone to parks in areas where we consider them high priorities from an equity standpoint,” Haynes said.
Despite its impact, LWCF has faced challenges since its inception in 1964. In addition to needing Congress to approve its funding each year, the program itself required Congressional reauthorization, which put it at risk of expiring. Congress did let it expire in September 2018, causing the program to lose millions of dollars that could have been used for conservation.
As part of a landmark public lands package in 2019, Congress voted to permanently authorize the program itself, so it’s no longer at risk of expiring. And if the GAOA is signed into law, LWCF would then automatically receive the full $900 million every fiscal year, unless Congress moves to change it.
Drew McConville, senior managing director for government relations at The Wilderness Society, said the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have shown people the importance of having access to green space close to home.
“I think there was already a very strong case for why there was an urgent need to fully fund our parks and public lands previously, but the COVID … crisis has shown just how critical our parks and trails are both to our health and well-being,” McConville said.
Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, said that funding—particularly for ORLP, which provides money to states to distribute to cities to improve park space—could be especially important as municipal budgets tighten due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Parks are a place to recreate, but they’re also a space for people to gather for important causes, or simply to connect, she said.
“Our parks are where democracy happens,” she said. “They are places where people gather to exercise their constitutional rights for free assembly and speech, but they are also where people come together to heal and really are the centers of our community.”
LWCF funding will also allow for upkeep, maintenance and creation of parks like Montbello, which is especially important in dense cities that lack green space.
“Particularly in dense areas where people live in high rises without a backyard, we need to provide ample space for all people, from children to seniors, to get outside to live healthy lives,” Nagel said.
Additionally, LWCF funding supports local economies. Money from LWCF has supported the creation of bike paths, hiking trails, playgrounds and other outdoor spaces, according to the LWCF Coalition. Local parks and recreation departments, some of which benefit from LWCF funding, employed nearly 390,000 people in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Every $100 million of LWCF money spent developing outdoor spaces could support between 1,680 and 3,080 jobs, according to a Boston University study.
The money also supports existing infrastructure at places such as national parks and public lands. In 2019, visitor spending at national parks contributed $41.7 billion to the nation’s economy and supported 340,500 jobs, according to the National Park Service. Visitor spending at National Wildlife Refuges in 2017 generated $3.2 billion and contributed more than 40,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The other part of the bill will designate up to $9.5 billion through 2025 to address the maintenance backlog of national parks, national forests and other federal public lands. NPS alone faces nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance, including things like road repairs and necessary fix-ups to utility systems, according to the NPS.
Seventy percent of the funds will be earmarked for NPS, with 15% to the U.S. Forest Service and 5% each to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Kathy Kupper, NPS public affairs specialist, said more than $6 billion of NPS’s deferred maintenance is related to repairing roads and structures such as bridges, tunnels, paved parking areas and roadways. The remaining fix-ups are to buildings, housing, campgrounds, monuments and amphitheaters, among other things.
Visitors to the parks may notice improvements to trails, roads and visitor centers, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
“It’s going to address some of these longtime issues that have been patchworked over the years and gone unaddressed,” she said. “This is going to be enormous for those parks that have had lingering maintenance issues.”
Pending expected approval later this year from the House where it has strong bi-partisan support, it’s also expected that President Trump, who has expressed support of the package, will sign it into law.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is historic legislation that will provide more high-quality and more equitable access to outdoor recreation across the country, make a strong investment in our public lands, and provide full funding for the LWCF,” said REI Co-op President and CEO Eric Artz. “I applauded the bi-partisan leadership for its commitment to passing this vital legislation and remaining united outside.”