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Visitor surge to Nevada’s public lands underscores funding need

Updated July 16, 2020 - 7:31 pm

The statewide shutdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has driven more people to public lands, serving as one of few silver linings during the outbreak, Nevada lawmakers and activists said Thursday.

But the surge of visitors in Clark County, and elsewhere throughout the state, has also underscored that preserving access to the outdoors is costly. A pending bill in front of the House of Representatives next week is expected to improve matters, officials say.

“We have seen a huge increase in the amount of traffic at our parklands right now,” said Dan Hernandez, the director of county parks and recreation. “During the shutdown, we’ve seen numbers of people getting out with their families.”

In March, the 40,000 visitors to Lake Mead on Saturdays doubled the usual crowds, prompting beaches and other facilities to close, according to Environment Nevada, an environmental advocacy and research organization.

Sand Harbor on Lake Tahoe increased visitation 81 percent in May compared to a year earlier, the group said. And Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area was forced to close trails, picnic areas and campgrounds due to hiking trails reaching capacity as early as mid-morning.

While the influx of visitors is a welcome sight locally and statewide, Hernandez acknowledged that it has also posed a challenge for land managers: It has been difficult to stay on top of maintenance needs and the enforcement of public health guidelines, particularly with limited staff.

Federal bill in the wings

Next week the House is expected to vote on The Great American Outdoors Act, which Hernandez, activists and the state’s Congressional leaders view as a significant opportunity to secure long-term dollars to protect national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, trails and other state and locally managed public lands.

The act, which passed the Senate last month, will permanently and fully fund the Land & Water Conservation Fund and make a significant dent into a $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks.

The conservation fund is bankrolled by fees from offshore oil and gas industry leases and it has contributed more than $100 million to outdoor preservation projects in Nevada since its inception in 1964.

But the account is rarely fully funded and more than half of its $41 billion in revenue meant for states has been diverted elsewhere over its lifetime, according to Environment Nevada.

Setting a marker

The group hosted a virtual conference Thursday in advance of next week’s House vote. The webinar included Nevada Rep. Dina Titus and Rep. Susie Lee, who both expressed confidence that the act would receive the green light.

“To me it’s a priority because by passing this we set a marker on how important our public lands are and how important it is for us to encourage people to get outside and enjoy our national parks,” Lee said.

Echoing conservationists on the conference, the lawmakers said that protecting public lands was an issue of ecology and economy, noting how the outdoors boosts local tourism. Such recreation generates $12.6 billion in statewide consumer spending, sustains 87,000 jobs and provides more than $1 billion in state and local tax revenue each year, according to Environment Nevada.

“This is really historic,” Titus said about the act, calling it one of the largest conservation investments in decades. “We’re facing a $12 billion (maintenance) backlog in our national parks and we have to take care of them, restore them, be sure that they are there for future generations, and that money will come directly out of this act.”

In Nevada, the maintenance funding shortfall is more than $160 million, and nearly $9 million in state parks, according to Environment Nevada.

A previous version of this story misstated The Great American Outdoors Act’s expected effect on the maintenance backlog at national parks.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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