The Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of several North Carolina public lands that could be extended thanks to a potential influx of federal funding. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

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The parking area at Carvers Gap on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line often overflows with cars on weekends. The lot provides hikers access to one of the most beloved sections of the Appalachian Trail in the Roan Highlands.

When parking spots are scarce, said Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy trustee Jay Leutze, drivers often trample sensitive habitat or line up along the highway, forming a traffic hazard.

Five years ago, Asheville-based SAHC purchased a wedge of land that became available from a willing seller to ease the parking situation. Land trusts, such as the SAHC, often work with the U.S. Forest Service and other public land managers to identify potential land conservation and access projects and purchase tracts from willing private landowners.

Since land trusts are more financially nimble than federal agencies, they often purchase land and keep it until the federal government has the appropriation to buy it from the trust.

The Great American Outdoors Act, approved by the U.S. Senate on June 17, would provide a surge of funds to public agencies to purchase land from trusts and other sellers with conservation and access value for the public throughout North Carolina and the U.S.

If passed by the House of Representatives, it will fully fund the annual $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9.5 billion over five years to undertake the massive pile of deferred maintenance on federal public land units.

Some of the funds, Leutze hopes, will be used to acquire the future parking area near Carvers Gap and allow the SAHC to focus on purchasing other vital conservation assets throughout the mountains.

“We work in partnership with the Forest Service [and other public agencies] to meet their priorities. If their interest is high, we are willing to take some risks on their behalf,” Luetze said.

For example, the U.S. Forest Service announced Friday that the agency purchased a 49-acre inholding on the Laurel Creek headwaters in Nantahala National Forest near Hayesville using the LWCF. The tract was initially purchased from a willing seller by Franklin-based Mainspring Conservation Trust in 2017.

Jeff Hunter of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association said the legislation is a bit of good news during a grim spring.

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“It’s a nice positive,” he said. “The national parks are common ground. Most Americans can agree that they are special places to learn about history and decompress and enjoy the outdoors.”

Proponents of the GAOA include President Donald Trump, who signaled that he will sign the legislation.

“I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands,” he said on Twitter on March 3.

Established by Congress more than five decades ago, the LWCF invests funds from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. Each year $900 million is deposited in the LWCF account in the federal treasury, though not all of the funds are appropriated for conservation or recreation projects by Congress and can be used for unrelated budget items.

The funds can be allocated to three general purposes: federal land acquisitions; state-level matching grants for outdoor recreation projects, such as ball fields, greenways or swimming pools; and a catchall category referred to as “other federal purposes.”

Luetze said Congress has just once fully endowed the $900 million fund since 1978. Last year, $405 million was diverted to other uses rather than its intended purpose: land acquisition.

“Over the history of the LWCF, that’s $22 billion that should have been spent on conservation. That’s a broken promise,” Luetze said.

Morgan Sommerville, the southern regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy told CPP that much of the “AT greenway” was acquired using the LWCF and said more conservation funds are needed to protect the pathway from development.

“The ATC and AT Club volunteers have worked hard to get congressional support for the GAOA,” said Sommerville, adding that nearly every U.S. senator from states that the Appalachian Trail traverses voted in favor of the act, including Sens. Tom Tillis and Richard Burr. The bill passed the Senate 73-25.

Burr said in a statement that the LWCF “is a commonsense program that not only increases recreational access to public lands in every state but does so at no cost to taxpayers. And this summer, as more Americans head to our national parks in a time of uncertainty, this sound investment will make sure our parks are ready to welcome them.”

According to Leutze, all Democrats from the North Carolina House delegation are in support as are some Republicans, including Patrick McHenry of Gastonia, who is a co-sponsor of the GAOA.

While “fully funding the LWCF has been the Holy Grail of conservation” said Leutze, just two years ago the fund faced a backlash by some Western U.S. lawmakers who sought to restructure or eliminate the LWCF.

In response, Burr and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, sponsored the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act that permanently reauthorized the LWCF and was signed into law by Trump in March 2019.

Although the Dingell act permanently authorized the LWCF, it didn’t address the diversion of funds intended for lands conservation. According to Leutze, passage of the GAOA will require Congress to assign all LWCF funds to land acquisition for the public good.

“On average over the last 10 years, LWCF has received less than 50% of its funding,” Luetze said. “If you go to $900 billion, you’ve at least doubled it. That’s transformational.”

Deferred maintenance of public lands

A second component of the GAOA provides funds to cover deferred maintenance costs on public land units. For example, the National Park Service has a maintenance backlog that includes $11.9 billion worth of projects such as the restoration of historic buildings, roads and park infrastructure.

Sommerville of the ATC said up to $60 million in projects are “awaiting funding to improve the AT in places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.”

The four national forests in North Carolina — the Croatan, Uwharrie, Pisgah and Nantahala — have a total of almost $62.9 million in deferred maintenance costs, according to public affairs officer Cathy Dowd of the National Forests of North Carolina office.

Phil Francis, former Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent and now chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said that, if passed, the GAOA “will improve the visitor experience and help fulfill the mission to protect parks for future generations.”

“It will make a large dent. It’s really big,” he said. “In my 41 years with the National Park Service, I don’t remember anything approaching this.”

Francis said many of the units in the National Park System, including the parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are aging.

“The older they get, the more that needs to be done,” he told CPP.

One challenge, Francis said, is building the necessary capacity to avoid a bottleneck of projects. However, he said, many units have “shovel ready” projects that are simply waiting on funding.

In all, the parkway manages 554 miles of paved road and about $500 million in deferred maintenance costs; roughly 90% of the costs are related to maintenance on paved roads.

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The GAOA will also have an impact on public land units along the coast, including national seashore units that are threatened by an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and storm surges.

Together, the Cape Hatteras and the Cape Lookout national seashores have over $100 million in estimated maintenance needs, including funds needed to preserve historic structures on the parkland, such as repairs to the Ocracoke Lighthouse and replacing the Fort Raleigh and Frisco water systems.

The Croatan National Forest, located on North Carolina’s central coast, was pounded by Hurricane Florence in 2018, which inflicted an estimated $17 million in damage to the forest’s infrastructure, including recreation sites and roads.

The US Forest Service said the Croatan National Forest has deferred maintenance costs of $213,000, including $88,862 to repair Flanners Beach, a popular recreation area near New Bern damaged by Florence. In addition, 10 priority road maintenance projects in Croatan National Forest account for $430,000 in deferred costs.

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement that the House of Representatives would vote on the GAOA in late July.

Leutze is hoping the House will move faster if there is an opportunity to vote sooner.

“There is so much uncertainty with the virus and current national affairs that we’d love to get this done as quickly as possible and signed into law as a bipartisan lift for the country,” he said.

“If there‘s anything that can unite Americans in this difficult time it’s our love of the outdoors.”

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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