One of the benefits Wright County has over many areas of the state is a robust county parks system. There is no way the county could have afforded to pay for the land acquisition and park and trail improvements on its own. Part of the reason the parks system has been able to grow over the decades has been funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
The LWCF was established in 1965 by Congress and has earmarked $900 million a year to the fund, which is generated by royalties from offshore oil drilling.
Wright County Parks & Recreation Director Marc Mattice said that, while the last four months have been a time of change and adaptation, usage of county parks has skyrocketed as residents look for a way to enjoy the outdoors with traveling great distances and still maintaining social distancing.
“One of the things that has happened with COVID-19 is that a lot more people are using our parks and trails than ordinarily do,” Mattice said. “I’ve heard from people over the last few months that they didn’t know we had this much. The reason we have this much is because of programs like this.”
When people think about grant funding, the Minnesota Legacy Fund is what comes to mind immediately. But, Mattice said that Wright County has received almost $2.5 million to fund 29 projects through the LWCF – funding that was needed to get most of the small projects done.
“We always talk about state funding, state bonding, state legacy funding, state this, state that,” Mattice said. “This is just as impactful as any of that in terms of parks, trails, habitat and water quality. The money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped complete a lot of projects in Wright County.”
LWCF grant funding has helped fund improvements in several county parks projects, including Beebe Lake Regional Park, Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park, Clearwater-Pleasant Lake Regional Park, Collinwood Park, Larson Park, Montissippi Park, Otsego Park, Robert Ney Regional Park, Schroeder Park and Stanley Eddy Regional Park.
Mattice pointed out it isn’t just the county parks system and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that have benefitted from the LWCF. Many city projects have been supplemented by those funds as well.
“This isn’t just about Wright County projects,” Mattice said. “Several city projects have been funded through this program. There has been a lot of improvements that have been made in the county parks system, but cities have received a lot of funding for their projects as well.”
City projects that have been funded through the LWCF include projects in Albertville (Oakside Park and Westwind Park), Annandale (Annandale Beach), Buffalo (Griffing Park, Sturges Park public access and West Pulaski Park), Cokato (Fieldcrest Park and Veterans Memorial Park), Delano (Central Park and Cramer Park), Howard Lake (Lions Park), Maple Lake (city tennis courts), Monticello (athletic complex), Montrose (Veterans Memorial Park), Otsego (Community Park and Noring Landing), Rockford (Riverside Park), St. Michael (Becker Big Woods and Community Park), and Waverly (Waterfront Park).
Although the LWCF was made permanent in 2019, its funding capacity remained in flux with the ability for significant amounts of money earmarked for parks and trails to be siphoned off for non-park/trail uses. That is why the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) became vital to the future of parks and trails funding.
Late last week, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelming approved the GAOA. The Senate passed the measure in May. The final step will be the signature of President Donald Trump, which is expected to come in the next few days.
Mattice said that the level of support of both Democrats and Republicans has been a pleasant surprise.
“Given how partisan voting in Congress has become in recent years, this is one of the most unified votes we’ve ever seen for a funding source,” Mattice said. “When it was passed 50 years ago to create the LWCF, there was one dissenting vote in the Senate. When they voted last year to make the LWCF permanent, the bill passed 92-8 in the Senate and 863-92 in the House of Representatives. You almost never see bills pass with that level of bipartisan support.”
The Senate bill, which was sponsored by Sen Cory Gardner (R-Colo), has 58 co-sponsors, including Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. The 58 co-sponsors include 41 Democrats, 15 Republicans and two independents.
Mattice said he is encouraged by the bipartisan support for the GAOA – it already has enough votes to pass the Senate simply by the number of co-sponsors. The importance of the GAOA is to divert all of the LWCF funding for the purposes in which is in intended.
“The problem is that, while $900 million is set aside each year for the LWCF, it doesn’t guarantee that all of that money is going to be funded in a given year,” Mattice said. “In fact, in the 55 years this been around, it has never been fully funded. Senators and Representatives have pulled money out of that for own special projects that have nothing to do with parks and trails. The Great American Outdoors Act would make sure that the money would be only be used for parks and trails projects and that’s what is in front of Congress now.”
With strong approval from both the House and Senate, the $900 million annual funding through the LWCF will become permanent and untouchable when President Trump signs it.
“This is a program that has done a lot of good and we want it to continue,” Mattice said. “You can’t go very far in Wright County without going by somewhere that has been impacted by that funding. We’ve had 29 projects in this county that have received that federal funding. We are glad to see that it looks like the program is going to continue and by fully funded, because it has done a lot of good – not just in Wright County, but in parks and trails throughout the country.”
For more information about the LWCF, click here: https://www.doi.gov/lwcf/about/overview