The clock has run out for the Land and Water Conservation Fund

SEPT. 30, 2015

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado), a past and potentially future beneficiary of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Credit: Giant Ginkgo, flickr.

UPDATE: In December 2015, Congress struck a deal to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund for three years—a hard-fought win for The Wilderness Society and our members

Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park is a place unlike any other. Sand deposits of the Rio Grande have sculpted the tallest dunes in North America here, some reaching 750 feet in height. The surrounding grasslands, wetlands, alpine lakes, mountains and ancient forests make the park one of the most biologically and geologically diverse in the U.S., harboring species such as bighorn sheep, bison and pika.

Unfortunately, Great Sand Dunes National Park is not “whole.” Thousands of acres within the park boundaries or immediately adjacent to it are actually private property, making them inaccessible to the public for outdoor recreation and impossible for the National Park Service to manage effectively.

We have a tool to solve Great Sand Dunes National Park’s predicament, along with those facing dozens of other treasured landscapes, from national parks to local hiking trails—the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Unfortunately, Congress allowed it to expire in 2015, and we need them to act so we can use it again.

A way to make public lands whole

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was signed into law in 1964, is a visionary idea that has helped protect millions of acres of land (including land that is now part of Great Sand Dunes National Park).

Companies that drill for (publicly owned) oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf off our shores pay a portion of their revenues into the fund, and that money goes into a trust to acquire “inholdings”—pieces of private land within the borders of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other protected sites. When the federal government buys inholdings, it can make a piece of public land “whole” and simpler to manage as a complete landscape. This makes it easier to protect wildlife habitat and make the place accessible for outdoor recreation—all without relying on taxpayer money.

While the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a huge success, protecting land ranging from the Grand Canyon to local parks, its potential has never fully been realized. First, Congress habitually raids the program’s trust fund to pay for unrelated projects, leaving vulnerable landscapes in limbo. Second, and more serious, the program itself expired on Sept. 30, 2015. If it is not revived and reauthorized in its traditional form, with strong and permanent funding, we can’t ensure that future generations will have access to healthy green spaces, parks or trails.

Stealing from America’s greatest conservation program

Multiple Land and Water Conservation Fund grants have helped develop El Dorado Park in Long Beach, California, since 1966. It now contains a community center, sports fields, playground equipment and more. Credit: AIBakker, flickr.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is based on a simple idea: when you deplete some of the earth’s finite natural resources, a portion of the proceeds should be invested in strengthening the rest of our nation’s natural assets.

To that end, revenue from offshore oil leases makes up the vast majority of the money in the program’s trust fund. Congress created this “asset-for-asset” reinvestment concept so that there would always be money available to add on to our parks and protected areas, without burdening taxpayers.

In the years since it became law, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been used to protect land as varied as national forests and historic battlefields. This includes American icons like Rocky Mountain National Park and Everglades National Park, right down to local trails and ball fields in your neighborhood.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is based on a simple idea: when you deplete some of the earth’s finite natural resources, a portion of the proceeds should be invested in strengthening the rest of our nation’s natural assets.

Oftentimes, a successful project serves multiple purposes--and does far more than just extend a boundary on a map. Inholdings acquired next to Arizona’s Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, in the Coconino National Forest, helped preserve the trailheads of two hiking trails plus important archaeological resources and streams that provide drinking water for Phoenix. In Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, LWCF funds helped pay to relocate a road that frequently washed out, causing expensive flooding. The project greatly reduced overall maintenance costs and allowed visitors access to popular areas of the park.

Ensuring the land gets its due

Though the fund has been used to protect iconic landscapes in all 50 states, and for more than 40,000 state and local projects, preventing its money from being siphoned away has become a perennial struggle.

Over $19 billion has been diverted from the Land and Water Conservation Fund by Congress over the course of the program’s life, leaving many outdoor projects unfinished and parcels of land unprotected. In recent years, funding for LWCFhas hovered around one-third of the full authorized level, even as new pressures result in wildlands and shared spaces becoming developed, fragmented or otherwise damaged.

These iconic spots are among those that are considered future priorities for LWCF:

Click here to view map in fullscreen

Put simply, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been neglected, breaking a promise that forward thinking leaders made to their children and grandchildren—to continually reinvest in our great natural legacy. It is now our job to continue the fund and do the same for the next generation.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund needs a comeback

Cascade Siskiyou National Monument (Oregon). Credit: BLM, flickr.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has enjoyed strong bipartisan support for 50 years. In February 2015, President Barack Obama proposed a federal budget that would reauthorize the fund while restoring its full and dedicated level of monetary support. Recently, a record number of bipartisan House and Senate members signed letters in support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Clearly we have not entirely forgotten the importance of this program. Now, we need to make good on that and stand up for the future of America’s lands and waters.

By voting to fully reauthorize the fund, Congress would ensure that future generations have access to healthy green spaces, parks, trails, and places to watch wildlife. It is vital that we tell our lawmakers to follow through on the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s original vision. And it’s so easy. The program has worked for 50 years, and it will work for 50 more! Making this happen won’t cost the taxpayers a dime.

LWCF Map: Explore county by county to see nearly every state & national LWCF projects

National projects are pin drops (approx. location)
To view state matching grant projects, click a county. Data available in "show related records" (Data thru 2014) 

(Note: Map works best in IE, Safari, iOS)

Map Data Sources

More LWCF resources