The recent debate about the location for Idaho Falls’ next water tower raised questions about the city’s history with a major federal fund.
One of the arguments citizens have made against placing the water tower in Capital Park-South is that the location doesn’t comply with the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The city purchased the park through the federal grant program decades earlier and any other use of the land violates the terms of the deal.
City officials say that wouldn’t be the first violation. Idaho Falls has been out of compliance with the Land and Water Conservation Fund since 1997 due to developments at three separate locations. And as the federal program is now fully funded for the first time since 2001, the city was already actively working on plans to get back in compliance.
“The time of not addressing this issue has passed. It’s a funding option we need to have at our fingertips,” said P.J. Holm, Idaho Falls’ director of Parks and Recreation.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created by the U.S. Congress in 1965 to help both state and local governments create green spaces or recreation opportunities. The federal fund matches up to 50% of the local cost, with the requirement that the land remain devoted to recreation in perpetuity.
The process for repairing compliance issues was outlined in the bill creating the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Communities must acquire or develop new green space which has an equal market value to the original land, as verified by the National Park Service, and will provide “reasonably equivalent usefulness and location as that being converted.”
Idaho Falls used the fund to help develop the Idaho Falls greenbelt parks in 1978. In addition to the projects in Idaho Falls, the federal fund was used for Peterson and McCowin Parks in Ammon, the Ucon City Park and tennis courts in Ririe Joint School District.
Kathy Muir, director of state and federal grants for the Idaho State Parks and Recreation Department, works with cities and counties on applying for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Muir said it isn’t unusual for cities to accidentally violate the terms of the fund as they continue to expand.
“The reality is that there’s a lot of turnover in government. Because the program protection is forever, people may not know or remember which sites are Land and Water sites,” Muir said.
Idaho Falls’ first violation came in 1997, when a home sale next to Esquire Park led to a minor encroachment on park land. Two later violations happened due to expansion by Idaho Falls School District 91: the creation of new storage sheds near Skyline High School and the new location for Dora Erickson Elementary School.
In total, the city is currently out of compliance with the Land and Water Conservation Fund on $78,000 worth of property. Placing the new water tower in Capital Park would add an additional $48,000 in owed land value. Being out of compliance prevents a city from receiving additional aid from the fund.
Holm said getting the city back in compliance has been an active issue for him since he became the Parks and Recreation director in 2019. District 91 for several years has budgeted $90,000 to help cover the cost of developing replacement green space, but Holm said previous city parks directors had not prioritized compliance. He said multiple city committees are working to identify property that could fit the conversion requirements and get market value evaluations through the National Park Service.
“They intentionally make it difficult to get back into compliance. There is a lot of red tape and approvals needed, which I am in constant communication to figure out,” Holm said.
Holm said the state and national fund managers know about the potential non-compliance of the new water tower and have not advised the city against continuing in that location. He was optimistic that a mitigation plan covering all compliance issues would be announced within the next few months.
“I hope they can find the property that’s going to work out for them. I’d like to give Idaho Falls some more money eventually,” Muir said.
Recent legislation has made accessing the Land and Water Conservation Fund even more enticing to cities that rely on it to develop recreation options. The Great American Outdoors Act, signed by President Donald Trump in August, permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was one of the bill’s sponsors in the House of Representatives, while both of Idaho’s senators voted against it.
Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.