Time is running out (again) for conservation’s bank account

An important source of public lands funding is set to expire at the end of September.

 

Editor’s note: On Thursday, the House Committee on Natural Resources moved forward on a bill to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In press releases, both Democrats and Republicans on the committee praised the bipartisan agreement and said they intend to pass the bill before the fund expires on Sept. 30.

Each summer thousands of hikers walk sections of the Pacific Crest Trail that were once in private hands. Over the last 15 years, the federal government has purchased more than 17,000 acres along its path to protect public access to the 2,600-mile route, with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund uses royalties from offshore oil and gas leasing to purchase private land to improve access to public lands, provide grants to state and local governments for public park projects and pay for conservation efforts on private property.

But at the end of September, the program could stop collecting money if Congress doesn’t renew it. As the clock ticks down on the fund, supporters hope it is renewed as part of one of the spending bills moving through Congress.

A section of the Pacific Crest Trail winds through Mt. Rainer National Park. Thousands of acres on the trail have been protected by LWCF funds.

The fund, which was established in 1964, has broad bipartisan support. A recent survey of small businesses in Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico found that about 80 percent of small business owners support reauthorization of the LWCF. Fiscal conservatives also point out that the program pays for itself from oil exploration in federal waters, rather than relying on additional taxes.

Conservatives who oppose land transfers to the federal government oppose the LWCF, saying it has strayed from its original purpose to support local conservation projects. A 2016 report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think-tank, argued that the fund doesn’t do enough to support local projects and that “the LWCF is primarily a federal program that expands federal control of America’s land and water.” Over time, an increasing percentage of LWCF money has been spent on federal land purchases, rather than local and state grants.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT, who leads House oversight of the LWCF as the Chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, has opposed the permanent reauthorization of the program. In September of 2015, Bishop, who has advocated for transferring federal public lands to states, allowed it to lapse without a vote. He defended the decision, writing that the fund was being used to purchase “millions of acres of land with little transparency, scant oversight and minimal local input.” A few months after it lapsed, Congress reauthorized the program for three years. 

Now with that temporary reauthorization due to expire, Bishop is willing to see the LWCF continue as long as its priorities shift away from federal land purchases. “Chairman Bishop is working on a bipartisan basis to modernize the law to ensure that states receive a more equitable share of LWCF monies and more funding is prioritized for public recreational access, as originally intended under the law,” wrote Rebekah Hoshiko, deputy press secretary for the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Under Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Interior Department, which is responsible for administering the lion’s share of LWCF funding, has sided with conservatives who want less money spent on federal land transfers. In his first budget proposal as Interior secretary, Zinke proposed slashing more than $330 million from the LWCF, but was rebuked by Congress, which instead increased spending by more than $25 million.

“It’s hard to justify taking in more land when we haven’t addressed the maintenance problem of our current holdings,” Zinke said during Senate testimony in April. The Interior Department estimates that it has more than $16 billion in overdue maintenance costs on the lands it manages.

Meanwhile, supporters of the program argue that new land holdings and easements are essential to maintaining and improving access to public lands. In many areas of the West, public and private lands are divided into a checkerboard pattern, which can lock out the public if there aren’t established legal trails or roads for public access. Some public lands are surrounded by private land and lack public access entirely. A recently released report sponsored by the sportsmen group Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership found that more than 9.5 million acres of public lands have no legally established public access. “If policymakers are serious about improving public land access for hunting and fishing, they need to pass a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full, dedicated annual funding,” the report states.

Typically, LWCF spending is connected to appropriations for the Interior Department, but as of mid-September, it has not been attached to any legislation. As members of Congress jockey for spending priorities ahead of midterm elections and the LWCF edges closer to expiration, one of the most important funding sources for recreation and conservation is caught in the Capitol’s political crosswinds.

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected].

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