Legislators sparring over Land and Water Conservation Fund — again

 

In the early 1960s, President Kennedy, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and a few other politicians got together and hatched an idea: use money from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation projects and acquire land for all Americans.

The result was the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1965. “It’s helped shape the American West,” says Alan Rowsome, director of government relations for land at The Wilderness Society and co-chair of the national LWCF Coalition. “Iconic national parks like Grand Teton and Yellowstone have had an immense amount of LWCF dollars over the years.”

More than 7 million acres — including urban parks, neighborhood soccer fields and rural hunting grounds — have been acquired through LWCF money. But the Fund has always been at the mercy of political arm-wrestling, and it now faces the most severe funding threats in its history. Meanwhile, the backlog of unfunded projects has reached $17 billion — up from $2 billion in 1998 and $10 billion in 2005 — and the whole kit n'caboodle is about to expire for the first time in 50 years.

Stewart Udall, then Secretary of the Interior, and Lady Bird Johnson in Grand Teton National Park, 1964.

The LWCF has been under the gun before. Congress is authorized to put $900 million from offshore oil and gas revenues into it annually, but though those industry revenues remain fairly constant, the amount of money that actually goes into the Fund fluctuates with political priorities, as illustrated by a graph in HCN’s most recent issue. Congressional appropriations dropped significantly during the Reagan era, and again in the 2000s, and each time, conservation advocates have raised the alarm. “Now is the worst time … to be cutting back on the Fund," one advocate told HCN editor Jodi Peterson in 2005.

The situation has only become more dire, supporters say. Republicans wary of taking on more public land would like to just forget about the LWCF altogether, zeroing out its line on the budget and diverting the money to other projects, such as chipping away at the national deficit (as Reagan did with LWCF money in the ‘80s) or helping the National Park Service with its own $13 billion maintenance backlog.

“During these dire economic times, I cannot imagine why purchasing more land is such a priority,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “It strikes me as counterintuitive to be adding more lands to the maintenance list.”

Authorization for the LWCF runs out in 2015, and supporters worry that with its future coinciding with a presidential election, the Fund’s political allies will focus on the election and the Fund will die a quiet death. Lawmakers in Washington are sparring over its fate. A Senate bill has been proposed to reauthorize funding and mandate the $900 million appropriation, but the same bill has failed before Congress twice before and Rowsome is skeptical that the recent iteration will get very far.

Sen. Murkoswki has also joined forces with Sen. Mary Landrieu, (D-La.) to propose that if the LWCF continues to receive funding, coastal states like Alaska and California where offshore drilling takes place should get more of the money.

As it stands now, the House is offering a meager $20 million appropriation to the LWCF (the lowest proposal in history), and the Senate has proposed about $400 million in its budget. The actual figure will probably be somewhere in the middle: An adequate compromise, perhaps, for a still-fragile economy, but compared to the $6 billion that the U.S. government takes in each year from offshore oil and gas drilling, even fully funding the LWCF would be a drop in the bucket.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News.