By Daniel Miguel
Twenty years ago, I was growing up in a working-class home in Westchester, FL spending my days learning bits of English from watching children’s programming on PBS. My parents were two young Cuban asylees who didn’t yet have much to their name, but they used one special community resource to make my childhood feel very rich: public parks.
Every afternoon, my parents would take us to Tropical Park, an expansive, 275-acre urban park in metropolitan Miami, to play and explore. At less than two miles away, our proximity to Tropical Park made it possible for my parents to make time for outdoor recreation despite their taxing work schedule. Their commitment to getting my siblings and me outside every day made for some of the richest experiences that I could have ever hoped for.
However, my childhood may have looked considerably different if not for a bipartisan congressional effort to create a monumental conservation program that would provide new opportunities for Americans to recreate — the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Without further action from Congress, that fund will expire on September 30, 2018, placing enormous monetary stress on federal, state, and local agencies that depend on the LWCF to meet their conservation and recreational needs.
Since its establishment in 1964, the LWCF has served as America’s most important conservation tool; protecting hundreds of millions acres of land and supporting more than 41,000 state and local park projects in every state and nearly every county. By reinvesting a small portion of the royalties paid by energy companies for extracting publicly owned oil and gas from the Outer Continental Shelf, the LWCF helps to safeguard and strengthen our nation’s natural areas and resources as well as our cultural and historic landmarks without the use of taxpayer dollars.
For over 50 years, the LWCF has invested over $16 billion in land and water conservation for national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, scenic trails and rivers, historic sites and monuments, critical habitats, and state and local parks across South Florida, the country, and several U.S. territories. According to the LWCF Coalition (an alliance of over a thousand organizations representing the outdoor industry, sportsmen, historic preservation, and environmental conservation), Florida alone has received over $1 billion of the conservation funds allocated over the life of the program. These appropriations have transformed South Florida by supporting the acquisition, development, and restoration of iconic parks like Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Tropical Park, South Pointe Park, Amelia Earhart Park, Alice C. Wainwright Park, Long Key State Park, and dozens more.
But parks like Biscayne National Park and Cape Florida State Park do more than protect wildlife habitats and historic relics, they also bolster our outdoor recreation industry which is a major economic driver in Florida. Outdoor recreation employs nearly half a million Floridians, more than the information technology sector and the aviation and aerospace industry combined. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, each year 7 million people go hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and wildlife watching in our state. Overall, outdoor recreation contributes a staggering $58.6 billion annually to our economy and generates $3.5 billion in state and local tax revenue that funds our public schools and the integral social programs that our communities depend on.
As a first-generation American raised in a region largely populated by Central and South American immigrant families, I’ve seen how pervasive the problems of income and racial disparity are in relation to public park accessibility. The lack of access to, and overcrowding of, public pools has been an issue that I have been following closely throughout the 13 years that I spent as a competitive swimmer in South Florida. Thanks to the LWCF, local parks such as Charles Hadley Park and Tamiami Park made it affordable for parents to enroll their children in learn-to-swim programs; a crucial skill for children to learn in a state that led the nation in child drownings in 2017. Unfortunately, these parks were established over three decades ago, and as the population in Miami-Dade County has risen from 1.6 million in 1980 to 2.5 million in 2010, our parks haven’t been able to keep up.
That’s where Congress comes into the picture.
In over 50 years of the program’s existence, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has only been fully funded twice (1998 and 2001) at its annual authorized amount of $900 million in Offshore Continental Shelling (OCS) revenue. Even as the profits from offshore development have soared past the earnings amassed during the 1960s, Congress has repeatedly diverted as much as 85% of the LWCF’s authorized OCS revenues to fund other federal programs and projects, often unrelated to conservation or recreation. This has left the LWCF severely underfunded and created a substantial backlog of unfinished outdoor and conservation projects estimated at more than $30 billion.
As demonstrated by the racial inequities found in large metropolitan areas like Miami, the consequences of budgetary negligence can have serious impacts on communities of color already stifled by the absence of open spaces in their neighborhoods. In 2017, the Trust for Public Land’s annual City Park Facts report found that, among other high-density cities in the United States, the city of Miami has one of the lowest levels of parks per capita at just 3.4 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. This has to change if we want to foster a healthy social and natural environment for future generations to enjoy. For example, access to parks with facilities for sports-related programs like basketball, soccer, football, baseball, tennis, swimming, and track and field gives kids an opportunity to dedicate their time to physical activities outside of school; a benefit that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says can lead to lower levels of crime and drug use and enhance quality of life.
At a time when land values are skyrocketing, population numbers are growing, and our outdoor spaces are increasingly threatened by urban development, Americans are counting on our congressional leaders to follow through on their commitment to the LWCF and protect our nation’s majestic landscapes and waterways for generations to come.
I believe that every child should have the opportunity to grow up near a park that will give their lives value and enrichment in the way that Tropical Park did for me and my family. That’s why I’m calling on Congress to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and to fully fund the program at its congressionally approved annual level of $900 million. Reauthorization will promote economic growth, secure thousands of jobs for hard working Floridians that depend on the outdoor recreation industry for their livelihoods, and minimize the recreational disparity of everyday life for children living in underserved areas of South Florida.
The LWCF presents an opportunity for lawmakers to restore the American public’s faith in government and to demonstrate that, despite the incendiary tone of today’s political discourse, bipartisanship is still possible.
Daniel Miguel is a student at Miami Dade College, former LHIP intern at Everglades National Park, and Miami native. He is featured in the new film “Land, Water y Comunidad.”