There has been a steady drumbeat in recent months that threatens to upend federal funding for conservation. And the American public needs to know about it. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, established by Congress in 1964, is the nation’s primary source of funding for conservation and outdoor recreation land acquisition – approximately $4M each year. The source is a modest tax on offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. Although Congress authorized up to $900M to be spent annually, currently only around $300M is used each year, which is a great source of frustration among conservationists. My friend, Hal Herring, has written on the importance of LWCF in Field & Stream, We Need Our Public Lands, Now More than Ever. Yet there are equal frustrations mounting among others regarding how LWCF money is used. Not surprisingly, a fight has broken out between a small group of Republicans and Democrats on the use of LWCF funds. Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is demanding that the feds stop using LWCF funds to acquire more private land. The fight has resulted in a stalemate, and the LWCF expired September 30. Tim Egan this week in a NYT article “Against Nature” decried Bishop’s actions as “tyrannical.” According to Egan
Bishop is determined to do real harm, to many real places, using his power as a “bomb thrower,” as Ryan called the congressional radicals. He’s been petty and tyrannical when faced with pleas by other members to let the fund come up for a vote. This means that access to existing parks and trails, through private land that was slated for purchase through the fund, will be denied.
Notwithstanding Egan’s hyperbolism, as with most fights this one has two sides. First, Egan is correct that LWCF is a critical source of funding for on-the-ground conservation projects. And opposing it is akin to opposing God, mom and apple pie. However, Bishop lives in a state 70% of which is owned and controlled by the federal government, so his jaundiced views on Uncle Sam’s use of the LWCF are understandably different from those who live in California or New York, for example, where LWCF funding and green spaces are wildly popular. But that doesn’t change the fact the LWCF remains a critical element to advancing local conservation efforts through federal financial assistance. As with most Congressional fights like this one, sometimes its easier to simply keep your head down in the foxhole to avoid getting soiled by flying food and epithets, but I smell a compromise here. One compromise would be to allow greater flexibility in the use of LWCF funds in exchange for upping the yearly spending, say to $600M or $900M. For example, what about allowing a portion of the LWCF to be used to help deal with the growing plight of our national parks, Fix Our Parks and Preserve Our Kids. Personally, I believe that a share of LWCF’s can and should go towards mitigating this growing problem, BUT only if LWCF is reauthorized and more funding is appropriated. But for this to happen we need new ideas, new leadership, and greater receptivity to changing the status quo.
In a speech this past week on western land management reform, Jeb Bush called for the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF, including providing states with a greater voice in how conservation spending and federal decisions are made. Rightly or wrongly, there is a growing feeling in the West that the federal government has become an overbearing slumlord, ignoring the economic plight of states and local communities, not to mention mismanagement of the lands themselves. This complaint is particularly acute in states like Utah where the majority of the state is under federal ownership and states have little, if any, voice in how federal lands are managed. The GOP presidential candidate advanced several overarching principles, including the need for a stronger partnership between states and Washington DC, and suggested moving the Department of Interior’s headquarters to the West to be closer to DOI’s landholdings and constituency. The former Governor also called for taking better care of federal landholdings (reducing maintenance backlog) and promoting shared use of these lands to conserve natural resources and simultaneously encourage economic growth and more recreational opportunities for all Americans. Hard to argue with these, yet surprisingly there are few middle ground solutions being offered in Congress these days. And these reflect common sense reform ideas, and I remain hopeful that other conservationists will get behind them to achieve a win-win outcome for the environment and the American public.
[In full disclosure, I am a staunch supporter of Jeb Bush and think he will make a terrific President. We at Conservefewell welcome the ideas of all in the name of advancing conservation, regardless of one’s political stripes or affiliation.]