Land and water fund, others still in danger

 

Last week was all about thankfulness.  Now, a week into the holiday season and with winter apparently ready to hit us full on, it’s time for a little crankfulness.

Being cranky is easy when we look outside to see a cold, dreary, dank, dark world. But doing something about a bad mood doesn’t have to be difficult.  In this case, I’m talking about counteracting our continued destruction of American outdoor values.

My son sam and brother-in-law Fernando enjoying a sunset on the Cape Final Trail on the Grand Canyon's North Rim in 2007. The Grand Canyon is one of many national parks that have received LWCF funding.

My son Sam and brother-in-law Fernando enjoying a sunset on the Cape Final Trail, Grand Canyon’s North Rim, 2007. The park is one of many funded by the LWCF.

Before we get there, a little scene-setting is in order.  I’ve been hoping recently for at least a bit of warmer, drier weather to finish up the fall yard and garden cleanup – getting rid of the decay and dead remains of that which once brought beauty and hope, the growth from warmer seasons when it’s easier to focus on good things in life.

In winter, we may be prone to looking around and detecting rot and putrescence that eventually freezes into a lump of useless, ugly blight.  You know what I mean:  Congress.

Not all of Congress. It’s primarily one guy, who also happens to be the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources –Rob Bishop of Utah.

Never was there a congressman whose first name more aptly described his relationship to the American people.

He’s the guy holding up reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program which for 50 years provided the country with many of its spectacular and well known outdoor recreation opportunities, along with immeasurable benefits to communities, regions and states that used the fund for park and recreation projects.

I detailed many of these in a column at the beginning of October.  It’s a list comprising many of our favorite Portage County and Central Wisconsin places, as well as those beyond. For my family, it’s meant everything from the Green Circle to the Grand Canyon.

Yami and Sam above the Virgin River in Zion National Park, Utah, 2007. I almost regret having spent my tourism dollars in Rob Bishop's home state.

Yami and Sam above the Virgin River in Zion National Park, Utah, 2007. I almost regret having spent tourism dollars in Rob Bishop’s home state; Zion is another LWCF park.

Being cranky only goes so far in a family newspaper, so there’s little reward in sharing excessive detail on this well-documented battle over the LWCF.  By all accounts, there is very strong bipartisan support for revival of the fund, which was allowed to lapse at the end of September.

It is, however, instructive to highlight how Bishop, the so-called leader of one of our own government committees, approaches the issue.   He’s the ringleader of a small band of legislative terrorists.

“On the one hand, we have my bill, which would restore the integrity of the Fund, protect private property owners from eminent domain, provide new educational opportunities and significantly bolster recreational access at the state and local level as the law originally intended,” Bishop says in an official release from the house committee.

“On the other hand, we have the Obama administration and powerful special interest groups that profit financially under the current LWCF regime, who are willing to lie and cheat to lock in permanently a system that lacks transparency and swindles states’ recreational needs.”

A person using a government committee and stooping to that combination of self-promotion and calumny to advance a political cause deserves scorn and public fury — at best.

When the robber Bishop does so at the cost of our children’s and grandchildren’s outdoor opportunities, it’s twice as bad.

Some excellent background on this issue is available at http://tinyurl.com/zcrr8va.  There, one can find a Center for Western Priorities page debunking some of Bishop’s myths about the fund and countering his empty posturing.

But we can do more than educate ourselves.  It always starts with the basics, which are calling and writing our real leaders.

There’s plenty of information out there on how to do it.  A good place to start is the LWCF Coalition’s web site, which has a page titled “Take Action!” at http://www.lwcfcoalition.org/take-action.html.

I’ll be writing both U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of our congressional district – who’s not on the house committee – and at least several of the 44 members of the committee.

I hope many Gazette readers will, as well.   If we can’t get outside as much now, perhaps we can make our inside time help support our outside future.

Think globally, act locally?

We’re in a critical period for recreation lands and opportunities at every political level in this country, and conversations with local park and tourism officials highlight that.

It’s not just the hijacking of the LWCF that hurts outdoor recreation in the foreseeable future. There has been a continued assault on all forms of funding for nature- and environment related activities and projects, as well as limitations placed on local communities’ ability to do much about it, especially in Wisconsin.

There’s removal of most state tax support for our state park system. There are the restrictions on local taxation power by hypocritical state legislators who rant against federal control while consolidating the state’s control over communities.

A cap on state stewardship funds.  Increased pressure on private businesses to fill in the gaps mean that there is a continued decrease in the pool of funds available for outdoor recreation projects — even as more entities compete for them. The list goes on.

Both Tom Schrader, Stevens Point’s city parks director, and Gary Speckmann, in the same position for Portage County, said that the LWCF hasn’t been as crucial for local projects in recent decades because of Wisconsin’s highly regarded Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

But deep cuts to that program in 2013 and in this summer’s state budget (as opposed to a 13-year moratorium on new land purchases originally proposed by the Scott Walker administration) mean more competition for less money that’s available for communities like ours.

At the same time, a well-intentioned effort by the state’s convention and tourism advocates resulted in a legislative mandate guaranteeing all communities will use more of their legislatively-sanctioned local room taxes for tourism and recreation-related projects.  In Stevens Point, however, the new rules had the impact of causing local governance to justify transferring some room taxes into the city’s general operating fund when virtually all of those taxes supported tourism-related projects in the past – many of which were directly related to or supportive of outdoor recreation.

Sara Brish, the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitor Bureau’s executive director, says the recent state action protecting 70 percent of room-tax money for actual tourism promotion and development – which clearly includes a wide range of outdoor recreation projects – was needed to bring many communities in line with the intended purpose of room taxes.  At the same time, the new rules encouraged some communities like Point, which traditionally had put all of the money toward such tourism projects, to use up to 30 percent for general operations.

Part of a family which spends as much time as possible in the Northern Highlands American Legion State Forest – a decades-long family tradition — Brish says she hopes community leaders continue to recognize the value of recreation and tourism funding.

“It adds to the quality of life, the overall tourism base, and the recreation base,” she said. “It’s good, especially if you’re outdoor-minded like I am. I really enjoy spending my time outdoors, whether it be camping or hiking or biking with my children on the trail … it’s my passion.”

Parks and recreation funding has clearly become a complicated effort as available grant funds, like the stewardship program, continue to shrink.

Schrader said, “The alternative is to seek corporate sponsorship, but you hate going to them over and over.”

It's not much to look at now, at least from the road, but the newest Portage County park will have a lot to offer.

It’s not much to look at now, at least from the road, but the newest Portage County park will have a lot to offer.

The most recent impact of the stewardship fund was this fall’s county parks purchase of 270 acres in the north-central portion of the county, an area that may be the most diverse natural area in the county, Speckmann said. The Plover River and North Star Creek, wetlands, a well managed upland forest, and a host of wildlife, including bears and wolves, are present at the site.

Half of the money came from the state stewardship fund and the other half from county land preservation and capital improvement funds.

The land will be used as a natural area open to hunting, canoeing, hiking and a diversity of other activities, including the possibility of a groomed cross-country trail and the county’s first fat-tire biking trail.

But such opportunities may be increasingly rare.

To head that off, both Schrader and Speckmann recommend communicating with leaders at all levels. Schrader believes citizens can have the most impact locally, particularly by calling and writing  aldermen.

Speckmann says professional parks managers have “beat our heads against the wall” for many years with political leaders and need the help of citizens.

“Stewardship and land and water are just just issues constituents have to talk to their legislators about and say how important they are,” he said.

The true impact of the cuts won’t be seen until later, Schrader said, but the risk is that people won’t recognize what’s happening until opportunities like setting aside land are permanently gone.

“You’re getting a lot of elimination of parks and rec services,” he said. “Ten to fifteen years from now … that’s when you’re going to see the effect.”

Author’s note:  This post was my Dec. 3 Portage County Gazette column. Thanks to Sara Brish, Tom Schrader and Gary Speckmann for the interviews.

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