Federal Funding For City Parks: the Land and Water Conservation Fund

by Anne Schwartz, Jan 20, 2004

This year is the 40th anniversary of the federal Land and Water Conservation Act, a visionary mechanism for protecting the country's natural areas and enhancing state and local parks and recreation. Although most people have never heard of this source of federal funding, they have probably enjoyed its benefits when visiting a national park or wildlife refuge or a state or local park.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has funded state and local park and recreation projects in almost every county in the nation and protected seven million acres of wilderness and wildlife habitat. The associated Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program has provided $230 million to local governments from 1978 to 2000 for park rehabilitation and maintenance and recreation programs in the inner cities.

Although New York state and city have not gotten as large a share of these funds as some other parts of the country, these two federal programs have helped pay for many of the parks and programs that New Yorkers know and love. According to Joshua Laird, chief of planning for the New York City Parks department, during the height of funding in the 1970s, the department received about five million dollars a year through the state grants program of the land and water fund.During this period, Urban Park and Recreation Recovery grants for New York City projects ranged up to $1.5 million a year. A $794,000 urban park grant in 1979 helped establish the Urban Park Rangers (Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe's first job at the department). More recently, the city received a $300,000 grant in 2000 to renovate the St. James Park House in the Bronx and a $1 million grant in 2002 to restoration the pavilion in Columbus Park in Lower Manhattan.

As important as these funding mechanisms are for protecting and maintaining the nation's natural and recreational space, they have often been accorded a low priority in Congress and the amount appropriated has fluctuated over the years. Spending from the two funds has almost never reached the level authorized, $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and $725 million over five years for Urban Park and Recreation Recovery. Most recently, the ballooning federal deficit has led to large cuts in appropriations from the funds.

How the LWCF Works

Funded with the receipts from federal offshore oil and gas leases, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was meant to be a consistent, dedicated source of money for the country's land conservation and outdoor recreation needs. Urban Park and Recreation Recovery was supposed to direct federal assistance in a similar way to recreation facilities and programs in distressed urban areas. In reality, Congress appropriates money for the funds as part of the annual budget process, and land conservation and urban recreation compete for appropriations with every other discretionary domestic program.

Land and water funding is divided into two parts. One part goes to the federal land management agencies to purchase land for conservation and recreation. The other goes to the states, which must provide matching funds. The states then distribute grants for various state and local projects. In New York State, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation administers the grants. For Urban Park and Recreation Recovery grants, local governments apply to the National Park Service.

A Broken Promise

After minimally funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Urban Park and Recreation Recovery throughout most of the 1980s and 90s, in 2000 Congress enacted a landmark bipartisan agreement that promised to set aside an increasing amount of money each year for six consecutive years in a new, larger fund it called the Conservation Trust Fund. That fund was earmarked for spending on parks, recreation, and other conservation programs, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Urban Park and Recreation Recovery. By 2006, the land and water fund was supposed to be fully funded at its authorized level of $900 million.

But as the Bush administration turned a budget surplus of $238 billion in 2000 to the current deficit of $300 billion, the two funds lost out. In 2002, during behind-the-scenes budget negotiations, Congress reneged on its agreement and dismantled the Conservation Trust Fund. Funding for the land and water fund went from $573 million in FY2002 to $270 million in FY2004; urban parks went from $30 million to zero.

Potential for More Funding

The federal government supports other municipal needs, from education to transportation. Significant federal funding for parks would recognize the importance of parks to the economy and quality of urban life, as well as their role in supporting other national priorities, like education and health.

Even with a projected $500 billion deficit, Congress still finds money for a lot of projects. Land conservation and especially urban parks seem to be a low priority right now, but state governments, local advocates, and national groups are working to change that.

In March of 2003, New York State Governor George Pataki revived a task force he had set up 1998 to promote the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in protecting the state's natural resources and outdoor recreation. New York State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro organized the support of the state's congressional representatives, all of whom signed a letter supporting higher appropriations for Land and Water Conservation Fund state grants and Urban Park and Recreation Recovery.

Conservation, recreation, and park groups, including Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, The Trust for Public Land and the City Parks Alliance, are working to educate Americans about the importance of the federal land conservation and urban park programs and to get full funding for the larger Conservation Trust Fund.

Alan Front, Senior Vice President of the Trust for Public Land, noted that the two funds are not monolithic programs so much as a mosaic of the needs of hundreds of places. "In the picture of declining support, a huge bow wave is being created by needy, meritorious projects with a passionate constituency that desperately wants to see them done," he said. "If a constituency on the ground -- folks who are supporting individual projects -- recognize the importance of federal funding that can help protect those places, it can be a very powerful force."