Broken Promise: Database Helps Track Illegal Parkland Conversions

April 15, 2013

Reporter’s Toolbox

By ROBERT McCLURE amd JASON ALCORN

On the shores of Lake Michigan, a private golf course and housing development, seen here in 2009, sit on public land once protected under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. © Photo by Robert McClure/InvestigateWest.

As government budgets increasingly come under the knife, a frequently advocated proposal is to close parks. Meanwhile, cashstrapped state and local governments have long sought to sell off parks or parts of them, and that trend appears to have accelerated as government budgets contracted in recent years.

But you know what? In many cases, these closures and selloffs are illegal under federal law. There is almost certainly a story in your state — and pretty likely one right there in your region or city — about how parks built or improved with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, have been privatized or otherwise improperly converted to something other than parks.

InvestigateWest, the Seattle-based newsroom where we work, looked into this trend and last year documented several high-profile examples. But it’s a national phenomenon that our small staff couldn’t hope to track comprehensively on our own. Our entreaty to you here is to figure out if it’s happening in your part of the country.

InvestigateWest has for the first time made the complete list of almost 40,000 park grants available in an easily searchable database. That’s an important first step, but more remains to be done. (Find how to use the database here.)

Oil offshore, land for parks onshore

In an era when diabetes rates are skyrocketing, the promise of public outdoor recreation forever embodied in the LWCF is more important than ever. It was a noble idea with roots in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Let’s make sure Americans have places to exercise and stay healthy.

To ensure a steady source of funding, Congress decreed that a percentage of federal revenues from offshore oil drilling — which was then just taking off, and seemed poised to result in at least some environmental damage — delivered something to the citizenry.

That was the promise: Land for parks onshore, for every American, in exchange for probable offshore damage from the likes of the Deepwater Horizon. Some of the new parkland would be federal, but lots of money would flow to the states and local governments to open or improve their own stretches of green.

And that’s where the promise broke down. State and local officials often forgot they were on the hook to keep these parks open and available for outdoor recreation by the public — forever. Legally. InvestigateWest’s reporting focused on major examples in Michigan, New York City and Oklahoma, but these “conversions,” as they are titled by the state and federal agencies, occur all over the country.

Under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and regulations flowing from it, the National Park Service, or NPS, is supposed to police these transactions and make sure that if federally funded parkland is converted to some other use, it is replaced by parkland of equal recreation utility and equal financial value.

But that’s not always happening, and there is likely an example in your turf that has really ticked off the locals. Beyond our detailed inquiries, we heard of plenty of others everywhere we looked that we simply didn’t have the time to explore. We’ve heard from folks as far away as South Carolina fighting park conversions who found out through our database that the parks they are fighting to preserve are protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Spinning the local angle

To report this story in your town or region, here are the steps to take:

  • Search the NPS or InvestigateWest database to determine which parks in your area were built or improved with LWCF grants. (You can use either one, but ours is fully searchable and includes all grants through 2011.) Only in the last ten years or so has the Park Service started to collect detailed location information. It’ll get better, but for now, you can only look up all the parks in your county. But try searching for your city or the name of a local park, too. It might be listed under the project name or grant sponsor.
  • Use your BFF Google to find out if there have been controversies over conversions of these parks. While InvestigateWest was the first to show this as a national pattern, we noticed that many news outlets had covered the controversy around these park conversions without realizing there was an underlying pledge to the feds to keep these parks as parks. (Hence this Toolbox — let’s keep ‘em honest!)
  • Contact local parks advocates as well as the national parks groups listed in the resource box on page 12.
  • Contact the National Park Service in your region. Every state has an LWCF representative. Ask what conversions they are monitoring. Although there is no good national database on this, NPS regions should have their own databases and also can give you the lowdown on the conversions they are tracking.

RESOURCES:

One angle we did not explore at length that’s becoming particularly pressing since we published last year is the idea by many local governments that they can simply shutter parks in the event of a budget shortfall. Under National Park Service regulations, this is forbidden without federal approval if the closure will last more than 180 days.

So it’s worth inquiring and probably even filing public records requests, if that’s appropriate, to find out what’s happening in your community or region. We stand ready to help you with background, advice, etc. Feel free to contact us at rmcclure@invw.org or jalcorn@invw.org.

 

Robert McClure, an SEJ board member, is executive director of InvestigateWest. Jason Alcorn is associate director of InvestigateWest.

 


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.