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National park funding? Not for Utah

Utah gets short changed on conservation funding

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A sign alerts visitors that Arches National Park outside of Moab is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on April 19, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A new law provides that money from oil and gas development will help pay for maintenance needs at national parks, but even though Utah has plenty of parks and plenty of oil and gas wells — the Beehive State got overlooked.

In fact, Utah received $7.3 million from the U.S. Department of Interior for projects on land under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, but nothing for its national parks.

Coastal states like New York received $50.5 million, Virginia raked in $247.5 million, and even Oregon was rewarded with $12.5 million.

The funding is the result of the Great American Outdoors Act passed last year that directs royalties from oil and gas development on public lands to deferred maintenance needs on public lands that include national parks.

Even though Utah ranks fourth in the nation for natural gas production and fifth in oil production from public lands — generating $88.5 million in royalties for the federal government — its national park maintenance needs were left begging.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. “It is one of the reasons these public lands issues are so divisive. ... If the federal government is going to own this land, they need to step up and take care of it.”

Utah is home to five national parks and has a deferred maintenance backlog of $225 million for its parks and monuments.

“Ownership brings responsibility,” Curtis said, adding that ignoring on-the-ground problems at national parks and monuments will only cost more in the future.

His criticism of the Interior Department’s funding allocation was echoed by the Western Energy Alliance, which represents independent oil and gas producers in Utah and elsewhere in the West.

“It’s astounding that Utah contributes to oil and natural gas wealth for the country and contains some of the nation’s most iconic national parks, but is rewarded so meagerly. Instead of addressing needs at Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, prosperous coastal states are allowed to cash in,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the alliance.

The organization took the funding slight as an opportunity to lash out at the Biden administration for its pause on any new oil and gas leases on public lands, which has prompted litigation from Utah and a dozen other states.

“The federal oil and natural gas program is basically the sole source of new conservation and maintenance funding for our public lands. With his ban on federal oil and natural gas leasing, President Biden is risking $2.8 billion annually for our national parks and other iconic lands,” Sgamma said.

The Interior Department announced in early April that it was distributing $1.6 billion for public lands nationwide as a result of the law passed last year and Utah’s share was solely for maintenance projects on BLM lands, not national parks.

Curtis said Utah’s allocation, contrasted with states like New York, North Carolina and Virginia, is an affront — especially given that Zion National Park is the fourth-most-visited national park in the country and draws millions of visitors a year.

“We are all waiting for the Biden administration promise of unity and being a president for all,” he said. “When you see dollars like this going to blue states, and neglecting red states, it makes that sound hollow. If he is going to be president for all, he needs to treat us all the same regardless of our political philosophies.”