Time is running out for one of the United States’ most successful — and least-known — conservation programs.
Virtually every county in the United States has benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed into law in 1964 with the goal of protecting natural areas and cultural resources and increasing recreational opportunities. In its more than 50-year history, the fund has helped 42,000 projects across the country, ranging from wilderness areas and historic battlefields to local tennis courts and trails.
“It’s an amazingly unknown program for all that it has accomplished,” says Kathy DeCoster, director of federal affairs at the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that helps acquire and protect natural spaces.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was originally authorized for 25 years and then extended another 25 years. When expiration loomed again in September 2015, Congress gave it a short three-year extension, which is now about to expire. If legislators fail to reauthorize the program before September 30, the fund will immediately run dry and will no longer be able to dole out money, which in recent years has averaged about $450 million annually.
Proponents of the fund like to highlight that it does not rely on taxpayer dollars. Virtually all of the money for the fund comes from revenue generated by offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. A small fraction of the money comes from a tax on motorboat fuel and sales of surplus federal property.
“It’s a balance, if you will,” says DeCoster, “an asset-for-asset arrangement when you deplete one natural resource, then take some of those revenues and make sure the American people get something permanent back from that.”
But if the fund isn’t reauthorized and that dedicated source of funding is no longer available, it could have both ecological and economic impacts affecting local, state and national parks, as well the outdoor industry, an economic driver in many communities.
“It would be a threat to some of the major ways that people engage everyday with the outdoors and wildlife,” says Mike Saccone, associate vice president for communications at the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.
Even ardent supporters of the fund have a hard time pointing out their favorite projects, because there are so many and they’re so varied.
The money from the fund serves two main purposes. The first is to enable federal agencies such as the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service to acquire more public lands for recreation.
One of the big things these acquisitions accomplish is to secure “inholdings.” These are areas of privately held lands that are within or adjacent to federal public lands and have high conservation or recreation value. The fund is used to protect these areas from development when there’s a willing seller.
It’s helped to bolster projects all across the country, including in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Everglades National Park and Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and California Coastal National Monument, to name just a few.
The second aspect of the fund is a matching-grant program that helps states enhance their recreation facilities and planning. Local recreational opportunities have gotten a big boost from the fund, helping to support new hiking and biking trails, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and parks in urban communities and underserved neighborhoods.
“People think getting outdoors and engaging kids with nature always involves wilderness, when in fact, for the vast majority of families it’s urban parks, trails, etc. — and those are the things that the Land and Water Conservation Fund supports,” says Saccone.
Since 1998 some funds from the program have also gone to related federal programs, including the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program, which helps to preserve lands through conservation easements, and the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which helps to protect vital habitat for critical wildlife.
It also has helped acquire and protect areas of historical importance like the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Kansas and the Martin Luther King. Jr. National Historic Site in Georgia, as well as battlefields in Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
“The Flight 93 Memorial was also funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” says DeCoster. “History doesn’t stop being made, and the fund is the premier source of funding for that kind of work.”
While hailed by many as an incredible success, the fund has also not been able to live up to its full potential. The Congressional Research Service reported last month that the fund has accrued $40 billion in revenue since its inception, but only $18.4 billion has been appropriated by Congress. The fund can accrue up to $900 million annually, but none of the money gets distributed until it’s appropriated by Congress, and Congress does not have to appropriate all the money. In recent years about half has been appropriated, and the rest remains part of the general treasury to be used by other programs.
“Despite this history of underfunding, [the Land and Water Conservation Fund] remains the premier federal program to conserve to our nation’s land, water, historic and recreation heritage,” said a March 2018 letter from more than 200 members of Congress, which was sent to the chairman and ranking member of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
The fund has always had bipartisan support, even from the beginning. When the act authorizing the fund was passed in 1964, just one member of each house voted against it, according to a report issued last month by the Center on Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation organization.
In the five decades since, Americans have embraced outdoor recreation activities with gusto, which has meant big business. The trade group Outdoor Industry Association reported that each year the outdoor recreation economy rakes in $887 billion in annual consumer spending, creates $124.5 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue, and supports 7.6 million jobs.
The Trust for Public Lands has shown the fund is also a good investment. The organization’s research found that for every $1 invested by the fund on acquiring federal public lands, $4 in economic value is generated over the next decade.
When it comes to the politics of the moment, the fund still has huge bipartisan support, with over 230 cosponsors to legislation in the House and substantial support in the Senate as well. But action to reauthorize it has still stalled.
“It boils down to a bit of a bottleneck in the House Natural Resources Committee, where the chairman and some of the members don’t see the Land and Water Conservation Fund as being as much of a positive as pretty much everyone else does,” says DeCoster. “They control that agenda.”
The committee’s chair is Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has a notorious record of voting against environmental issues. In 2015 he called the fund a “slush fund” for the Department of the Interior.
One of the biggest champions of the fund has been Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has been placing holds on other pieces of legislation, trying to rally action from his colleagues or stall other legislation until action is taken on the fund.
“I’ve proposed numerous times this year that the Senate take up this issue to give it the fair consideration that it deserves,” says Burr. “However, we’ve been denied a vote, even while bending over backward to accommodate my colleagues’ objections.”
Jonathan Asher, senior representative of government relations at the environmental nonprofit The Wilderness Society, explains that some Congress members are opposed to the idea of the federal government growing its landholdings. “Those voices, especially in the current administration where there is a big of a vacuum of leadership on land conservation issues, have gained prominence,” he says.
In 2016 the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a report arguing that the Land and Water Conservation Fund should be retired, explaining that over the years it has been used to “grow the massive landholdings of the federal government.” It advised directing federal dollars to maintenance of existing federal public lands.
“Congress should allow the [Land and Water Conservation Fund] to expire and enable more state and local government and private control of America’s land and water,” advocated the foundation report. “Sunsetting the fund will result in more efficient and accountable land management, creating and preserving opportunities for economic development, outdoor recreation and environmental protection.”
Despite this opposition, environmental groups seem cautiously optimistic. While Saccone says he’s “reasonably confident” Congress will do something before the fund expires at the end of the month, it’s not clear what exactly that may be.
It’s possible Congress will punt again on the issue and only reauthorize the fund for a short period.
Conservation groups are pushing for as much certainty as possible for the program, with the best result being full funding and permanent reauthorization. Second best would be a long-term extension, like another 25 years, and a high level of dedicated revenue for the fund.
“We’ve had pretty good appropriation numbers in recent years, but they can come and go and are always based on the whims of members of Congress,” says Asher.
It’s unlikely that a standalone piece of legislation would be passed at this point, but action on the fund could be included in another big legislative item that also needs to get passed. And there’s one more avenue, which would be a potential “grand bargain,” explains Saccone. The biggest win for conservation groups would be a package that addressed three related issues — the Land and Water Conservation Fund extension, funding for other wildlife conservation issues and addressing funds needed to remedy the backlog of maintenance on public lands and parks.
While that best-case scenario may not come true, proponents are still pushing hard for the fund.
“It is my sincere hope that we can reauthorize the Land and Conservation Fund before the end of the month to give vital conservation projects currently underway, and those in the planning process, the certainty they need to carry out their essential work,” says Senator Burr.