Alaskans across the state, myself included, rediscovered local parks and trails during the COVID-19 lockdowns and travel bans. Bike shops and outdoor recreation-oriented retail stores were kept busy with higher-than-normal demand for outdoor recreation and subsistence gear. Even online shops have experienced minor backlogs in specialty gear like kicksleds and the extra-large pressure cookers used for canning salmon. Despite the incidental gear shortages and use restrictions governing parks and trails, most of us managed to get out into our public spaces this past year, and, based on recent trends, public lands will continue to see an increase in usage.
Another thing I discovered, along with a renewed appreciation for local bike paths, was that funding for park infrastructure has faltered recently. As more people accessed our local parks, I started hearing anecdotal evidence that our state, borough, and city governments are struggling to fund standard park maintenance, let alone improvements to trailheads and park facilities. Investigating further, I learned that Alaska State Parks are facing a $60 million maintenance backlog! Fortunately, we may now be able to start addressing that backlog by accepting federal funds for local park projects in the form of grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
The LWCF is the only federal grant program that directly funds the design and construction of community parks, and it works by using revenue from federal taxes on oil and gas extraction to fund conservation and recreation in our wild spaces. The LWCF enjoys full bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., and has been so successful that in August of 2020, the LWCF achieved permanent full funding as part of the Great American Outdoors Act.
This year, the governor’s proposed budget includes the funding required to match the federal LWCF grants. His proposed budget supports the use of LWCF funding for park and trail projects. Traditionally, approximately 50% of the LWCF funding is used for state projects and the rest is made available to local entities like cities and boroughs for their park projects. If the Legislature strikes that funding from the governor’s budget, all of our parks will continue to suffer from overuse and underfunding. During these unprecedented times, when so many people have turned to our parks and trails for exercise and as relief from isolation, it would be wise to start investing in our state and local parks, especially when we have available funding through the LWCF program.
Not only would the funding help improve access to our natural spaces for Alaska residents, and have a beneficial impact on public health, but it has the potential to provide a boost to the economy as well. Improvements to parks and trailheads will provide employment for residents, and, as tourism returns to the state, our improved facilities will be more attractive to visitors.
If you have enjoyed our beautiful Alaska trails or parks this past year, you might consider contacting your state representative and state senator. Encourage them to approve the LWCF line item in the governor’s budget and to give the Department of Natural Resources receipt authority for the federal funds. My hope is that when the Legislature is back in session, our representatives will reflect on how much our residents and communities rely on parks and trails for health, recreation, and tourism. Approving the receipt of the funds would be of great benefit to residents across the state and is an investment in Alaska’s future.
Mélisa Babb is a longtime resident of Anchorage, an avid hiker and novice biker, and the current President of the Alaska Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
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