Map of LWCF funding through federal land management agencies and state & local assistance program.

Researchers say that rural communities looking to outdoor recreation as an economic development tool could benefit from parks and conservation funding bill that’s supported by both parties and the president.

Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) are leading the push for the package that would provide funding and resources for parks and public lands. The Great American Outdoors Act would increase spending to address the maintenance backlog in National Parks while also making the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanent and fully funded.

“LWCF is very important for rural communities who want to pursue outdoor recreation as a vehicle for rural economic development,” said Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group. “LWCF has touched all 50 states, touched thousands of local communities, and it’s an important resource especially in rural places.”

According to Lawson, many rural communities have a difficult time finding resources to invest in the parking lots, boat launches, trailheads, and other access points necessary for outdoor recreation.

“Building infrastructure for outdoor recreation costs money. LWCF provides a resource, particularly in underresourced communities that might not be able to raise taxes locally to pay for the construction of these amenities,” Lawson said.

Many conservation and outdoors recreation advocates have been working to assure that the LWCF receives the attention it deserves for making public lands more accessible.

Money for the fund is collected through a fee on offshore oil and gas drilling. The current structure of LWCF allows Congress to re-direct funds to other expenses via the annual Congressional budget negotiation process.

The Senate bill includes $900 million annually for LWCF that would be distributed to local, state and federal conservation projects. The park service package totals $1.9 billion annually until the fiscal year 2025. Those funds are split between the following agencies:

  • 70 percent for the National Park Service;
  • 15 percent for the U.S. Forest Service;
  • 5 percent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
  • 5 percent for the Bureau of Land Management;
  • 5 percent for the Bureau of Indian Education.

“This coordinated effort by senators on both sides of the aisle confirms that conservation and access are inherently bipartisan values,” said John Gale, Conservation Director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, in a press release.

Gale pointed out that last year Congress made LWCF permanent as part of the Public Lands Package. “Now we have the opportunity to ensure that federal land managers have the resources they need to responsively oversee critical lands and waters – and advance conservation and access projects that make our communities more livable, strengthen our economy and uphold our legacy of public lands, waters and wildlife,” Gale said.

Headwaters Economics research has documented economic growth in some rural counties focused on recreation. “We do know that outdoor recreation is growing as an economic force around the U. S., and especially in rural places,” Lawson said.

“That comes from the tourists spending money in rural communities, but there is something we think is even more important,” Lawson said. “That is outdoor recreation as a tool to bring people to the community, people that might have first visited as tourist, fell in love with a place and then decided to move there. It’s those people who bring long-lasting economic benefits to rural community.”

Recreation is a significant part of the rural economy in some counties. According to a Stateline analysis of Census data, the trend for outdoor recreation in rural communities is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017. This growth reversed population declines since 2010.

While counties with large mining and farming industries shrank, counties with large recreation industries grew the most, by about 42,000, to about 6.3 million.

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