Bipartisan Urban Parks Legislation Introduced in the House

Last week, U.S. Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio) introduced bipartisan legislation to increase investment in urban and community parks across the country.

Their bill, entitled the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) Grant Program Act (H.R. 2943), provides dedicated funding of up to $25 million annually for park and recreational development in metropolitan communities. Upon introduction, the bill had 25 bipartisan original co-sponsors.

The ORLP grant program has received an appropriation from Congress under the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) State Assistance program for the last several fiscal years. However, it has not been formally authorized through legislation, making it easy for appropriators to allow the program to go unfunded in future appropriations bills, especially as they feel pressure from the Trump administration to make substantial cuts to discretionary spending.

Barragán and Turner's ORLP Grant Program Act takes the much-needed step of formally authorizing the ORLP program. If passed, it would provide dedicated funding to the grant program through revenues derived from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA). GOMESA is a fund that splits federal revenues from oil and natural gas extraction in the Gulf of Mexico between Gulf states for coastal restoration and the LWCF State Assistance program.

Depending on the price of oil and the amount of drilling occurring in the gulf over the next several years, the fund could generate up to $125 million annually for LWCF State Assistance.

State Assistance funding from GOMESA is not subject to appropriation, and under the ORLP Grant Program Act, 20 percent of GOMESA State Assistance funding — up to $25 million annually — would be set aside specifically for urban and underserved communities through the ORLP competitive grant program.

APA is a part of the Urban and Community Park Coalition, which endorsed the ORLP Grant Program Act. In a statement regarding the bill's introduction, APA President Cynthia Bowen, AICP, said, "The American Planning Association thanks Representatives Barragán and Turner for their strong support of recreation and conservation in urban communities through the introduction of the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Grant Program Act. Parks provide enormous health, economic, and social equity benefits to the communities they serve. This legislation serves as a critical step in helping underserved communities develop outdoor space where residents can gather, exercise, and play."

Why Congress Must Direct Dollars to Urban Communities

When it was originally established in 1956, LWCF was authorized to receive $900 million annually. It was created to direct funding to two primary purposes: federal land acquisition and State Assistance grants for state and local park projects. Money for the fund comes from leasing fees paid by offshore oil and gas companies, not taxpayers. However, Congress must appropriate funds for LWCF each year, and they have chosen to appropriate only about half of the total money the fund has generated over the last 50 years.

Over the last decade, State Assistance has received a substantially smaller appropriation than that provided for federal land acquisition. Money to acquire national parkland is undoubtedly vital, but it should not come at the expense of investing in state and local park and recreation projects.

APA supports full funding at $900 million annually for LWCF, but also stresses that the appropriations for State Assistance and federal land acquisition in any given year should be equitable. Equitable funding between the state and federal LWCF programs would demonstrate an understanding that state and local parks are just as important as national parks and require federal investment.

State and local parks are often closer to where people live, making them more accessible on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, residents of metropolitan communities reap proven health, environmental, economic, and social equity benefits from well-planned local parks. However, urban communities, especially those that are economically disadvantaged, tend to lack adequate access to local parks and recreational facilities, and yet often lack adequate resources to develop these vital community spaces. Unfortunately, because of recent inadequate State Assistance funding, little to no federal money makes it down to cities.

Thus, the ORLP Grant Program Act is a vital piece of legislation that will help ensure a portion of LWCF State Assistance funding makes its way to communities where people live so they can enjoy the benefits these spaces provide. At the same time, Congress must increase the annual appropriation for State Assistance to ensure state and local park needs are met.

LWCF, ORLP, and the FY18 Budget and Appropriations Process

The President's FY18 budget request proposed dramatic cuts to discretionary funding across the board, and the Department of the Interior, which manages LWCF and ORLP, was no exception. The proposed cut for State Assistance was around 18 percent, and the administration proposed essentially eliminating LWCF funding for federal land acquisition. These cuts undermine the core objective of the program established over 50 years ago — to reinvest revenues generated from the extraction of one natural resource (offshore oil and gas) in the conservation of another (park land and open space nationwide).

Over the last several weeks, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been on the Hill explaining and defending the President's proposed budget to various oversight and appropriations committees. LWCF enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, meaning the administration's drastic cuts have generally been met with incredulity, and several legislators on both sides of the aisle have voiced their intention to largely ignore these proposed cuts as they move through the FY18 appropriations process.

That said, pressure to cut domestic spending is strong, so while unlikely to be as severe as those proposed by the President, harmful cuts to LWCF State Assistance and ORLP remain a very real possibility.

Rep. Barragán, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, highlighted her introduction of the ORLP Grant Program Act during a recent budget oversight hearing in which Secretary Zinke was testifying. In her remarks, Barragán emphasized the importance of LWCF, and specifically funding for parks in urban communities. She also highlighted how detrimental major cuts to LWCF would be for communities across the country.

Watch her remarks, which reference her work with APA through the Urban and Community Park Coalition:

Top image: Musicians entertain the crowd in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia — one of APA's 2016 Great Public Spaces. Photo by Albert Yee.

About the Author
Kirsten Holland is policy associate at Advocacy Associates.

June 26, 2017

By Kirsten Holland