U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today told Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne that full funding should be provided for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He also expressed concern about the low funding levels provided for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park despite the fact that it is “America’s most visited national park.”
“When I served on President Reagan's Commission on Americans Outdoors, the wisdom of a conservation royalty was widely recognized,” Alexander told Secretary Kempthorne today at a hearing of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “That’s why I have been such a big supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. We need to make sure that we are funding this environmental benefit to offset environmental burdens.”
Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in 1964 to meet America's needs for outdoor recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat conservation and open space. During its first 40 years, LWCF provided more than 40,000 grants to state and local governments, and LWCF sites can be found in 94 percent of America’s counties.
Since the early 1980s, the LWCF stateside grants program – which provides grants to states and localities – has been consistently underfunded. While funding has declined, demand for conserved areas has dramatically increased. Since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was first established, the population of the United States has grown by more than 40 percent, putting more pressure on open spaces.
“I was very pleased to see the $1.5 million in extra funding for the Smokies last year, but we are still not giving it the funding it needs,” Alexander said. “The Great Smoky Mountain National Park hosts more visitors per year than any other national park – nearly 10 million. That’s more than twice the levels of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, and more than three times that of Yellowstone. So why does it appear that those other parks are slated for a larger increase in dollars and by percentage than the Smokies? There may be a reasonable explanation, but I’d like to know what it is.”
According to USA Today, in Fiscal Year 2008 Yosemite National Park received an increase of $2.5 million, Yellowstone $2.4 million, and the Grand Canyon $1.6 million, while the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received an increase of $1.5 million. The $1.5 million increase was signed into law by the president as part of the Omnibus Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2008 and brings the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s annual budget to $18.7 million dollars, helping the Smokies with the cost of pay raises, increases in fuel and utilities, the expansion of the park’s volunteer program, and hiring 55 seasonal employees.
In addition, the Fiscal Year 2008 Omnibus bill provided $2 billion for all National Park Service operations – up from $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2007 – and included funding for a new matching grant program under the president’s Centennial Challenge initiative for which the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be eligible to compete. The Centennial Challenge calls for $100 million per year to be made available to parks and aims to generate non-federal money to match it dollar-for-dollar.
“Secretary Kempthorne, I compliment you on your effective stewardship of the parks and for the conceptual design of the Centennial Challenge, which is a brilliant idea,” Alexander said. “We look forward to welcoming you back to the Great Smoky Mountains on April 28th for the Sustainable Tourism Conference.”