Political sparring over the Land and Water Conservation Fund

A Wyoming canyon is the focal point of the dispute over the program’s future.

 

A stunning stretch of landscape in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains known as Devil’s Canyon is a classic success story of a popular federal conservation program. The Land and Water Conservation Fund buys private land to create and enhance federal, state and local parks and other public lands.

Devil’s Canyon Ranch “was an 11,000 acre purchase that provided access to an additional 22,000 acres that previously was not available because the access road went through a private property that was gated,” said Randy Newberg, host of the Sportsman Channel’s Fresh Tracks, and a lifelong sportsman from Bozeman, MT.

Today people can visit a spectacular deep canyon, with opportunities for great trout fishing, big game hunting, camping and caving.

By buying an 11,000 acre ranch in Wyoming, the Federal government provided access to more than 30,000 acres of Devil's Canyon for hunting, fishing and camping. Courtesy of BLM.

At a Capitol Hill hearing this week where Newman spoke, Devil’s Canyon emerged as the symbolic rope in the tug of war over the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund collects $900 million annually in royalties from offshore oil and gas. In recent years, though, Congress has diverted about two-thirds of that money to the general US treasury.  

Unless Congress reauthorizes it, the 50-year-old program would expire in the end of September. Competing visions for its future were on display during a hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands oversight. While Democrats and some Republicans want to keep the program like it is, other Republicans want to reshape it to meet their goals of reducing federal land purchases and putting states in the driver’s seat.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, jumped on the Devil’s Canyon example as a chance to make her pitch for a major overhaul of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to promote a philosophy for public lands that is popular with some GOP leaders.

Lummis said it would have been better if the state of Wyoming had purchased Devil’s Canyon with funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“We could have acquired that more quickly through the state, and still provide access to that additional 22,000 acres of federal land,” Lummis said.

Lummis and some Republicans want at least 60 percent of LWCF dollars to go to states. They also argued that the money should go not to acquiring new land but to the upkeep of roads and facilities on existing federal lands, which they say are poorly maintained.

“Who is best able to target these funds and recognize what is precious in each state in terms of preserving our history, our natural resources, our ability to recreate, our ability to provide opportunity to the people who live there and who visit there?” Lummis said, adding, “I just truly trust states.”

Some Republicans, including Utah Republican Rob Bishop, who chairs the committee, argued that by purchasing land, the federal government reduces local tax revenues, which are needed for schools.

“IF LWCF is used to acquire more land, it’s obvious that’s going to hurt people, especially kids in schools,” Bishop said.

Democrats on the committee argued that the Land and Water Conservation Fund should continue to work as it does now, with the money dedicated to acquiring properties rather than paying for the upkeep of roads and facilities in existing federal lands, which should be funded in other ways.

“Why then raid the conservation fund for those backlog transportation issues?” said the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva from Arizona.

Grijalva and other Democrats also pointed out that local governments play a big role in selecting which parcels to purchase, even when the federal government buys the land. For instance, Devil’s Canyon was so important to the local community that Big Horn county sued to gain access after owners of the ranch set up a gate and barred entry in 1998. The county lost in court.  

But access was reopened in 2003 after the federal government paid $4 million for the property through the LWCF. It acquired the last parcel of the former ranch in 2010 for $2 million from a conservation group, which helped facilitate the purchase.

This week, Grijalva and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced bipartisan legislation that would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund so that the program would not expire.

“The LWCF’s mission is popular, but it’s more than that,” said Grijalva in a release. “It’s a binding guarantee Congress and the federal government have made to the public.” 

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE.