Decision by Army Corps of Engineers shortsighted, costly and hurtful

Posted Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with its stellar record of building dams, lakes, inland navigation channels and Army military projects, is also the nation’s No. 1 federal provider of outdoor recreation.

And yet, with all that expertise and history of visionary accomplishments, this mammoth government organization has policies in place that can force it to make unwise, unexplainable and painful decisions that have a direct impact on people around the country, including in North Texas.

That became clear this month when the corps announced that, after a “legal review,” it was canceling its partnership agreement with nonprofit organizations that not only save the agency money each year but have a proven record of maintaining and improving about 40 public parks around the country.

Among the nonprofits losing contracts with the corps was the Lewisville-based Our Lands and Waters Foundation, which managed 18 parks at Benbrook Lake, Lake Lewisville, Lake Lavon and Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

The foundation, which last year collected about $2.2 million in fees from visitors for picnicking, camping, swimming and boat launches, used the revenue for park upkeep, paying for utilities and extending service hours.

The most recent decision from Washington is that all money collected in fees must be deposited in the Lands and Waters Conservation Fund within the U.S. Treasury Department, taking away the local partnering agency’s authority to reinvest those funds directly into the parks it managed.

Washington oversight of funding for any federal agency can be good, but it is clear in this instance that there was a partnership that was working and the funds were being used properly. As for the actions of the regional foundation, it “did everything right,” said Randy Cephus, deputy public affairs officer for the Corps of Engineers Fort Worth office.

Ironically, just this spring the corps awarded Our Lands and Waters Foundation its 2012 Excellence in Partnerships Award, citing its outstanding work of saving money, renovation and replacement of recreational facilities and getting water-safety messages to the public.

Because of the recent Corps decision, the foundation has laid off its staff and terminated about 70 contracts that affected about 200 people, President and CEO Tom Burrell told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board Thursday.

More than 90 percent of the parks are open year-round, with the North Texas ones having increased volume in November and December. It will be difficult for many of those to remain open now.

Our local members of Congress, who often cry about tight budgets, strained federal agencies and lack of public/private partnerships, ought to lead the charge to correct this obvious mistake.

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