True Grit: FUNDamental Misunderstandings - The Truth about the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Monday, June 27, 2011

At a time where it is hard to find the facts beneath the political rhetoric being tossed about in regards to our public lands and the economy, there is one truth that we cannot bury—Americans overwhelmingly support  investing in the conservation of our open spaces and see a return on that investment through increased tourism and recreation in the communities surrounding our nation’s public lands. In addition, the outdoor industry has reported a growth in sales during this time of financial recession, making our open spaces a valuable economic asset to main street America. If you listened to a small minority on The Hill, you would think that conservation will increase tax payer costs and serves as a federal government land grab, but the True Grit is that there are programs out there, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), that do not cost tax payers a penny. These programs should receive the dedicated funding that has been collected from the oil and gas industry, and not face cuts during the upcoming budget battles.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is not supported by taxpayer dollars, but instead comes from revenues of offshore oil and gas development, used to safeguard open spaces and natural areas. When the LWCF was created in 1965, the purpose was very clear- use revenues from the depletion of one natural resource - offshore oil and gas - to support the conservation of another precious resource - our land and water. Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are put into this fund. The money is intended to create and protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects. Every one of our 50 states in the union have received benefits from the LWCF.

Each time Congress delves into a budget battle, the mission of the funds is set aside and instead money is diverted to unrelated budgets and programs rather than conserving our most important lands and waters. As a result, there is a substantial backlog of federal land acquisition needs estimated at more than $30 billion—including places vulnerable to development such as the Florida Everglades, Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, Civil War battlefields in Virginia and other precious places around the country. State governments also report needing $27 billion in LWCF funds for eligible local parks and recreation projects.

There are some common arguments made against the Land and Water Conservation Fund that create misconceptions about one of the most vital conservation programs in America.  This despite the fact that most Americans understand the need to protect critical habitat for wildlife, conserve wetlands, watersheds, and clean water supplies, and ensure public access for hunting, fishing, and other recreation.

Misleading Argument #1: LWCF is nothing more than a federal land grab
When private property owners wish to conserve their lands through the LWCF they are exercising their private property rights in a public-interest way. These land acquisitions are win-win situations that provide flexibility and opportunities for land owners (with property within the federal boundary) while at the same time promoting recreational access, water and habitat protection, historic and cultural protection and other economic and public-resource gains to the community.

During the process, local communities, members of the public, and landowners themselves have ample opportunity to weigh in with their views.  Land acquisitions do not typically occur where there is overriding opposition, and they certainly do not proceed if landowners are not willing sellers.  Instead, LWCF funds are directed to those communities that are urging the conservation of key resources-- with input from state and local officials, sportsmen’s groups, recreational users, and of other constituencies– along with landowners who wish to sell these properties. Federal acquisition would provide the public with greater access, recreational opportunities, resource management, and resource protection.

Misleading Argument #2: We Cannot Manage the Lands We Already Have
In reality, the LWCF is a critical tool in a broader toolbox of actions that agencies can take to manage public land more effectively. National parks, wildlife refuges, and forests across the country contain privately held in-holdings within the boundaries that if acquired improve management, reduce costs, provide contiguous habitats, and increase public access. LWCF acquisitions can help ease law enforcement costs by eliminating boundaries, cut down on invasive species treatments as well as on firefighting costs. The acquisition of in-holdings and adjacent lands protect this interface from development and, therefore, the cost of protecting the development from fire. For example, more than 50% of new housing in western states is being built in areas prone to wildfires bordering public lands in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Firefighting costs currently account for nearly half the Forest Service budget, and with only 14% of the WUI currently developed, further development threatens to boost the costs even further.

Misleading Argument #3: The Federal Government Owns Too Much Land & Shouldn’t Use Funds for More Land Purchases
Our country is developing, modernizing and growing at a rapid rate. We need open space and outdoor recreation opportunities more than ever. Strategic acquisitions to our federal lands ensure that future generations will have hunting, fishing, hiking and biking access, sustainable communities to live in and economic benefits from tourism.

Americans seek an enhanced quality of life by living near public lands. Even in an economic downturn, during the 2010 elections, voters showed their continued strong support for investments to protect our land and water by approving 30 of 36 (83%) state and local ballot measures nationwide to fund conservation and parks. The lands owned by the federal government have long lasting and beneficial economic effects on local communities.

Economic Benefits

  • Even during the recession, outdoor industry sales rose at a rate of 6 percent between January and August 2010.
  • According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the value of hiking, bicycling, hunting, fishing, and other recreation to the U.S. and local economies is $730 billion annually.
  • The outdoor recreation industry supports 6.5 million jobs and represents 8 percent of total annual consumer spending.
  • LWCF has supported over 41,000 state and local projects through its matching grants program, using only $3 billion to generate over $7 billion in nonfederal matching funds.
  • Every $1 spent on LWCF yields a $4 return on investment.
  • An average of 174 million visits to national forests occur annually, where tourists spend nearly $13 billion.
  • $88 billion in annual state and national tax revenue and $289 billion annually are generated in retail sales and services across the U.S. through outdoor landscapes.

A Few Questions to Ponder:

  1. Doesn’t protecting and maintaining our public lands and open space through LWCF funds increase tourism and outdoor recreation which in turn adds economic value to communities?
  2. Why is investing in our public lands consistently voted by Americans as a top priority?
  3. Doesn’t it make sense that a connected landscape is easier and more efficient to manage?
  4. How do the federal government and land trusts work with willing sellers to provide them flexibility and opportunity to protect their land?

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