Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Breaking the gridlock: Fixing government processes is essential for public recreation in West Virginia

by Margaret Everson

This winter as West Virginians will gather with their friends and family to enjoy cooler temperatures and wonder in the splendor of quiet woods, some will rent a cozy cabin at Watoga State Park or head to Blackwater Falls State Park to hike or ski the snow-covered trails.

And while many residents and visitors enjoy these special places, few realize these recreational opportunities were made possible, in part, through the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s State and Local Assistance Program (state LWCF). It’s a program funded equally by offshore oil and natural gas royalties and matching state dollars.

Like any federal-funding program, there have been challenges properly spending this money. But recent legislative action, championed by the Oak Grove Initiative and our partners, is addressing these challenges.

This past fall, the Office of the Inspector General (IG) at the Department of the Interior evaluated state LWCF grants issued by the National Park Service. It found that since 2014, unobligated funding — money meant to support recreation, outdoor access, and opportunities in communities but that states haven’t been able to spend — has reached nearly half a billion dollars. In fact, in 2021, Congress rescinded $23 million in unobligated LWCF funds remaining from 2017 and earlier. According to the IG, the primary reason funds were not obligated was money to support program administration costs (such as salaries and expenses to states for administering grants, monitoring projects and site visits) had not been provided to states.

In 2020, while I was acting director of the National Park Service, we sought to fix this problem. In its management advisory recommendations, the IG agreed with our assessment and urged the park service to seek a formal opinion clarifying and updating the service’s authority to provide administrative assistance to states. The current administration supported these efforts, and the 2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill heeded these calls.

Along with increased funds for conservation and recreation projects, the newly enacted law offers states a lifeline of administrative support by providing them with up to 7% in matching grants to support administrative costs for their LWCF programs. These funds will be essential to enjoying and improving West Virginia’s recreational opportunities, while supporting and growing the $454 billion recreation economy.

As billions in new funds make their way to state coffers under the Inflation Reduction Act and the new Infrastructure Law, assistance in managing these funds will be critical to protecting taxpayers’ resources while achieving the potential these new funds offer to West Virginia residents and visitors to our great state.

As communities, conservation groups, and individuals who care about access and opportunities for all people, we must loudly and consistently ask our elected leaders to focus on the process of how these dollars get to their intended places so all communities may benefit from the recreational activities they make possible.

Margaret (Hopkins) Everson, a Morgantown native, is the executive director of the Oak Grove Initiative, an organization founded to help government agencies improve their internal processes and policies to better distribute funds to support communities while delivering conservation, recreation, and natural-resource benefits. Everson previously served as the Acting Director of the National Park Service, Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Counselor to the Secretary of the Interior.