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Sununu, Shaheen Seek Reversal Of Surprise Change To Conservation Grant Program

Mount Washington Auto Road
A new sewer system for the strained Mount Washington State Park is among the projects that could be affected by a last-minute change to a major conservation grant program.

Editor's note: The Department of Interior announced Feb. 11 that the order with the controversial change would be rescinded. Below is the original story, which was published Feb. 8, 2021.

Gov. Chris Sununu and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen are raising concerns about a change to a major federal conservation grant program, made on the last day of the Trump administration, that state officials say could block important upgrades to popular state parks. 

The issue is with the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in 1965. In a letter to the Biden administration earlier this month, Sununu said the LWCF has supported more than 650 local and state recreation projects in New Hampshire with $42 million in grants.

Credit Cannon Mountain / NHDNCR
The Cannon Mountain tramway was on tap to receive LWCF funding for upgrades in the next fiscal year, but is no longer eligible under the new rules, according to state parks officials.

"Without assistance from the LWCF program as we know it today, the strength and character of New Hampshire would not be the same," Sununu said in his letter.

New Hampshire has prioritized using money from the program to maintain and expand its built recreation infrastructure -- including bath houses, parking lots, campgrounds and playgrounds -- said community recreation specialist Eric Feldbaum, who oversees the LWCF for the state parks.

"People will go out, and they go hiking or they go into a park and they go for a kayak or for a swim, but it's the infrastructure that plays a really key [role] in the enjoyment of those activities," he said. "The money has gone into a ton of bathroom facilities."

He said high-profile past uses of LWCF funding have included elements of Jericho Mountain State Park, the bath houses at North Hampton State Beach and Monadnock State Park, and the Lafayette Brook Tract at Cannon Mountain Ski Area.

Sarah Stewart, the state's natural resources commissioner, said the outdoor recreation boom of the pandemic has made this kind of funding even more important to New Hampshire.

“It's definitely opened our eyes to the need that people have for getting outside, retreating to nature, trying something new,” Stewart said. “That’s awesome. We want to capitalize on that, but in order to do so, we have to keep things maintained, we have to upgrade our facilities.” 

Former President Trump, as well as Shaheen and the rest of the New Hampshire delegation, applauded Congress for permanently funding the LWCF last year.

Then, less than a day before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s Interior Department issued new guidance for how states are allowed to use their annual LWCF allocations.

The change says that states can no longer set their own priorities for the grants, and instead have to gear their LWCF project selections toward a set of national priorities focused on wilderness, wetlands, endangered species, hunting and fishing.

Feldbaum said he and his counterparts with the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers were blindsided by the change. The group, which focuses on the LWCF, wrote to the Interior Department about the issue in January.

"These actions hijack, alter and destroy the purpose of the only outdoor recreation partnership program between the local, county, state and federal governments," the letter said.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR file
NHPR file
Visitors to Mount Washington State Park in 2018. The state hoped to use LWCF funds to upgrade the park's sewer system in the coming year, but can't under the new rule change.

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One problem, Feldbaum said, is the new priorities are already covered by other federal grant programs, while recreation infrastructure has gotten its sole federal support from the LWCF.

“The new guidance would require us to acquire land, but not necessarily develop a support structure for people to actually use it,” he said.

He said the new priorities wouldn’t have worked for the majority of state and local projects that New Hampshire has funded with the LWCF in the past, including ones that got grants in the current fiscal year, such as a planned whitewater rafting park in Franklin.

The main priority for physical infrastructure under the new rules, he said, relates to sport shooting venues.

The change will also revoke millions in expected funding from projects that Feldbaum said were already planned for the state's next capital budget.

Affected projects include a new sewer system for the strained Mount Washington State Park, and upgrades to the Cannon Mountain tram. Feldbaum said these projects were planned around nearly $6 million in LWCF money for which they're no longer eligible.

Feldbaum said the state would also, essentially, have to freeze its whole LWCF program for about a year while it wrote a new plan to meet the changed rules – a lengthy process that itself relies on LWCF funding and typically happens every five years with substantial public input.

Sununu wrote to the Biden administration about the issue last week, asking the Interior Department to reverse the change as quickly as possible.

Credit John Vo
Jericho Mountain State Park in Berlin is a popular ATV spot and was set up largely with LWCF funds under the previous program rules, according to state parks officials.

Senator Shaheen has also pushed back on the change, saying in a statement that it "run[s] counter to the work we did in Congress to ensure the long-term authorization and funding for the LWCF." 

Her office says she worked against late attempts by the Trump administration to cut funding to the program, and that she shares and has raised state officials' concerns about the potential effects of the rule change. 

"The Biden administration has a lot of work to do to mitigate the damage caused by the Trump administration on a number of issues, especially those related to our environment and conservation efforts," Shaheen says in her statement. "I’ll continue conversations with the Biden team at the Department of Interior and as the Senate considers his nominee to be Secretary of the Interior so this issue is addressed and reversed as quickly as possible." 

Biden's Interior secretary nominee is Deb Haaland, a Democratic Congresswoman from New Mexico and enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo who would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary. 

Eric Feldbaum said he hopes Interior can reverse the LWCF change before New Hampshire’s next budget is solidified, so the state can plan its upcoming recreation investments with full funding.

This story was updated Tuesday with a statement from Sen. Shaheen and details of her involvement, as well as additional photos. 

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