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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...