Reckoning with History: The devolution of conservation’s trust fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is set to expire, thanks to a partisan Congress.


Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

In 2015, Congress allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to lapse. The LWCF functions like a trust fund, where Congress directs offshore oil and gas royalties into conservation projects; it remains very popular across the country and across the political aisle. Because of the public outcry when it expired, Congress extended the fund three more years, which means that it will die at the end of September — unless lawmakers vote to revive it. If the fund folds, it will be in part because of the partisan environment that has developed since its inception. But its collapse will close off a popular and successful avenue for federal and local collaboration.

The fund’s history stretches back to the 1950s, when pent-up consumer demand and a growing population pushed more Americans into the leisure-seeking middle classes. They flooded national parks, forests and refuges to recreate, and public-land agencies needed a plan to respond to the demand. The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, authorized in 1958 by Congress, recommended a public fund to support recreation, in places ranging from city parks to wilderness. Congress obliged and passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964 “to assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility” for outdoor recreation opportunities “for individual active participation … and to strengthen the health and vitality” of Americans and visitors from other countries. The LWCF furnished money to acquire new lands, such as inholdings within existing federal parks or wilderness areas, and to match state grants to bolster local public parks, including those in urban neighborhoods. Support for the bill was bipartisan; just a single representative in each house of Congress voted against it.

Initially, the funding came from user fees, sales of surplus federal property and a tax on motorboat fuel. By 1968, Congress had modified the funding formula to grab a share of oil and gas leasing receipts from drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, a clever way to soothe legislators’ feelings of guilt for allowing exploitation of natural resources by funding conservation. (Today, the LWCF is nearly fully funded by offshore drilling royalties.)

The Bonneville Shoreline Trail winds along the hills above Salt Lake City. It received support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The authorized annual limit of the fund has steadily increased, to $900 million, but Congress must specifically appropriate the money. Only twice in its half-century history has the Land and Water Conservation Fund been fully used. So while money flows into the account — some $36.2 billion since 1965 — Congress has only appropriated $16.8 billion. Even that deflated sum has been sufficient to acquire close to 7 million public acres. In its early years, the fund helped create new national parks and recreation areas. In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act authorized using up to $17 million from the LWCF to protect wild river corridors. More recently, the LWCF helped prevent development and acquire land to connect portions of long-distance paths, such as the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, or more modest and local favorites like the Bonneville Shoreline Trail along the Wasatch Front. Virtually every Western county has received LWCF investments; 42,000 grants have been sent to states to partner in developing recreational opportunities.

Despite such successes, the fund has drawn the ire of lawmakers over the years, especially as the way it was distributed changed. The original law provided that 60 percent of the fund should be allocated for state projects and 40 percent for federal. Now, the law specifies that not less than 40 percent should go toward federal projects. In 1998, Congress amended the LWCF to allow for “other purposes” aside from land acquisition. In a 2000 Senate hearing about restoring full funding to the LWCF, Larry Craig, R-Idaho, put it clearly: “I don’t want the federal government owning one more acre in Idaho. I’m mainly concerned because federal lands become king’s lands.” Today, conservative and free-market environmental think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Property and Environment Research Center, similarly object to reauthorizing the fund and expanding federal holdings, drawing inspiration from the Sagebrush Rebellion’s opposition in the 1980s. Such opponents argue instead that private property and the free market offer the best path forward for improving conservation. Some critics also oppose the migration to “other purposes” and the shift toward greater benefits to federal compared with state and local projects, because they maintain that federal agencies do a poor job managing existing lands.  

When Congress debated the law in the early 1960s, National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth urged senators to support it so that unborn generations could develop “their God-given right to understand, enjoy, and obtain inspiration and healthful benefits from the very land, water, and air from whence all have sprung.” No such rhetoric may be able to save the fund now, even if Wirth’s faith in parks and wildernesses still widely endures. For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped create a full range of outdoor recreation and conservation opportunities, from favorite neighborhood parks to remote wild canyons and sometimes the trails that connect them, adding immeasurable wealth to the United States. Unfortunately, a conservative bloc in our partisan Congress seems unwilling to admit that.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor, and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington.

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