FILE - Tourists in Rocky Mountain National park

Tourists in Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colo. 

Increasing royalties for oil and gas development and implementing taxes on outdoor recreation equipment are among the policy proposals that could help alleviate the over $19 billion maintenance backlog on federal lands, according to a recent study by an environmental advocacy group.

The Denver-based Center for Western Priorities released a report last week called “Funding America’s Public Lands Future,” which argues that “policymakers should consider establishing a Conservation Trust Fund with diverse funding streams that could augment general fund appropriations.”

The four federal agencies that manage 640 million acres – the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service – have a collective $19.38 billion in deferred maintenance costs. Federal lands are welcoming more visitors than ever, and agencies' budgets are being stretched thin, all while dealing with the increased impacts of climate change such as more intense wildfire seasons, the study said.

The study acknowledged the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses revenue from offshore drilling rather than taxpayer dollars to fund conservation at the state and federal levels, but “the program has long faced uncertain funding levels.” 

LWCF is authorized to receive $900 million annually, but is still subject to congressional appropriations, so it most often doesn’t receive the full funding. The center said the program should be fully funded and the amount should be adjusted for inflation, which would end up being $3.6 billion. 

In addition to funding for LWCF, the report proposes a “Conservation Trust Fund” made up of several revenue streams to fund public land maintenance and conservation.

The center says royalty rates for oil and gas development on federal lands should be raised to 25 percent, up from the current 12.5 percent, as one revenue stream for the fund.

A sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment “could generate significant revenue, while hardly affecting individual purchases,” the report said. The outdoor recreation industry is valued at almost $900 billion annually, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. 

“Such a tax could be advertised so that consumers of outdoor goods are conscious of their impact on public lands and their involvement in protecting them,” it added. 

The center also suggests revenue from legalized sports betting and marijuana could go toward funding conservation. Last week, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure legalizing sports betting and using up to $29 million in annual revenue for funding water projects across the state.

The report also says closing loopholes for coal mining, legislation paving the way for more renewable energy on federal lands, and updating hardrock mineral mining laws as changes that would add revenue to the fund.

Other groups, such as the Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC), have argued for allowing national park managers to have greater control over recreation fees based on each park’s funding needs. 

“There’s a surefire way for recreationists to guarantee reliable funding – take a more direct role,” the free-market environmental group says. “Expanding the use of recreation fees and giving public land managers more flexibility in using the revenues they collect could go a long way toward helping maintain our public lands.”

Regional Editor

Derek Draplin is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as an opinion producer at Forbes, and as a reporter at Michigan Capitol Confidential and The Detroit News. He’s also an editor at The Daily Caller.