Independence National Historical Park, one of Philadelphia’s most visited tourist sites, hasn’t had money for basic improvements and maintenance for years, and sometimes it shows.
That could change under the Great American Outdoors Act, a conservation program the U.S. Senate passed last week that would appropriate billions to fully — and permanently — fund parks and historical sites across the country.
More money could also flow to Valley Forge, and even the New Jersey Pinelands.
For decades, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been diverted to other uses, resulting in a huge backlog of billions of dollars in deferred maintenance and projects at some of the most prominent national parks and forests.
Fully funding the conservation fund has become a bipartisan issue, with support from hunters, anglers, environmentalists, and even the oil and gas industry. Each year, 315 million people visit national parks and the money would boost economic support for gateway communities, and bring in more hunting, fishing, and other recreation.
In an era of rollbacks and cutbacks, the legislation is poised to be a rare bipartisan win, say environmentalists, conservationists, and businesses that depend on tourism dollars. It was sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R, Colo.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.).
The bill, which calls for $900 million in financing, will go to the House, where it also enjoys bipartisan support, then to President Donald Trump, who voiced support as far back as March. It would also provide $1.9 billion per year for five years to make repairs at national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges.
“Treasured public lands such as Nockamixon State Park, Tyler State Park, and cherished community venues such as Hatfield Community Park are all just a few of the examples of the beneficiaries of this valuable fund,” U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican whose district includes Bucks County and part of Montgomery County, said in a statement. He is one of 86 members co-sponsoring the bill in House.
“It’s not often that lawmakers can say they helped pass legislation that will have an impact decades into the future, but today’s vote on the Great American Outdoors Act is one they can tell their grandchildren about,” said Marcia Argust, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks campaign.
The bill to fully finance the Land and Water Conservation Fund was long sought by environmentalists. The national parks’ backlog of needs is estimated at more than $12 billion, according to the LWCF Coalition, an umbrella group of businesses, land owners, and conservation organizations.
The legislation has the support of hundreds of recreation groups, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which noted the projects have potential to put thousands back to work as the economy recovers from a recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We know LWCF is incredibly important to hunters and anglers as one of the most enduring and vital funds for securing access to our public lands at no cost to the taxpayer,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO at Trout Unlimited.
Jessica Loya, of GreenLatinos, called the bill “a remarkable step in the right direction” for Latinx communities, bringing them “one step closer to having equitable access to parks and outdoor spaces in their neighborhoods.”
The conservation fund is 55 years old, but was permanently authorized by Congress in 2019. However, that did not guarantee that the $900 million that goes into the fund every year would go toward its intended use. Billions of dollars over the years have been used for non-conservation purposes. In the most recent fiscal year, 2020, only $495 million was appropriated to the fund, the highest amount in 15 years.
The conservation fund is financed through royalties from offshore oil and gas production. The money is given out through grants and supports completing trail networks, providing playgrounds and ballfields, improving campgrounds, expanding wildlife habitat, and preventing forests from being developed.
Park tourism contributes $40 billion to the U.S. economy, generating 330,000 jobs, according to the National Park Service, which estimates the legislation could lead to an additional 100,000 jobs.
It’s not clear how funding would be spent at local national parks and lands.
Some money currently goes toward conserving places of historical significance, such as Independence National Historical Park, which draws 4.6 million visitors a year, and includes Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The park has suffered from years of deferred maintenance, leading to complaints about shabby grounds.
Conditions have improved somewhat, primarily because a local landscaping company, Brightview Landscapes, donated $300,000 worth of landscaping and plantings last year.
But the First Bank of the United States, part of the park, is still shuttered to the public because of its condition.
Independence National Historical Park also administers Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, Gloria Dei National Historic Site, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.
Leslie Obleschuk, a spokesperson for Independence park, said the estimated total for deferred maintenance for all four sites is about $54 million.
Philadelphia has received almost $15 million for 80 projects from the conservation fund. For example, FDR park has received $783,000, according to the Wilderness Society, which has an interactive map of current projects on its site.
In Pennsylvania, $332 million of the fund over its history has gone to Brandywine Battlefield, the Delaware Water Gap, Gettysburg, John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, and Valley Forge, and other forests and conservation projects, according to the LWCF Coalition.
In New Jersey, $347 million has gone to Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, the Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Brigantine, and other locations. Money has also gone to the Pinelands National Reserve, 1.1 million acres of pine barrens which is under a partnership between the federal government and New Jersey.