When our National Parks were created, their boundaries encompassed some of the most desolate, dangerous and inhospitable areas in the country, which all but guaranteed their pristine nature. But today, there remains nearly 12,000 private property parcels in our National Park system. While that only comprises three percent of the park’s total land area, it makes an impact considering it doesn’t take a very large house to ruin a an otherwise perfect view of the Grand Canyon.
To most park-goers, building a home inside Zion or Yellowstone under the guise of loving nature makes about as much sense as driving a dump truck through a McDonald’s because you are enthusiastic about the McRib. However even given the obvious irony, there is no shortage of investors lining up to throw down on some of the most exclusive real estate on the planet.
Officially, it is the policy of the National Parks Service to purchase all private property that exists within park boundaries whenever it goes up for sale. Money for these purchases comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund which gets its financial resources from offshore oil drilling royalties (trading the potential destruction of one environment for the preservation of another). It’s a relationship that started in the 60’s and has more or less degraded completely over the last 4 decades. When it was set up, the LWCF received a funding cap of $900 million. Unsurprisingly, that cap has only been reached twice in the four decades that the LWCF has existed. In fact, the annual budget has decreased almost every year. Last year, the LWCF budget was only $301 million with only $161 million dedicated to buying land. In other words, it’s a program that is, at its core, grossly underfunded.
What’s more is that the little money that does end up with the LWCF is now meant to provide for a myriad of additional programs, not just for buying private property. The result is about what you would expect: the parks can’t afford to buy back the land within their boundaries and in most cases, are forced to sit idly by as mansions obscure mountains. At only a fraction of its maximum budget, the LWCF has no chance to catch up on the estimated $30 billion it needs to meet all of its conservation goals. Many acquisitions rely on the generosities of wealthy donors, who often step in to buy available property and gift it to the park system. But that generosity can only go so far. For now, the future of those remaining private properties is up in the air, with a struggling park on one side and a lusty pool of realtors on the other.