Earth Day irony: Land and Water Conservation Fund under fire in Senate hearing

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (West Virginia) was protected with the help of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Credit: Gerri Wilson (USFWS), flickr. 

An April 22 hearing on the Land and Water Conservation Fund featured proposals to effectively cripple America’s most important conservation program.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) got a full oversight hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on April 22.With only five months to go before it expires on Sept. 30, opponents jumped at the chance to criticize the program, potentially paving the way to prevent its reauthorization.

Tell Congress to stand up for the Land and Water Conservation Fund!

Since it was signed into law in 1964, LWCF has been used to preserve over 5 million acres of land from coast to coast, including everything from the Grand Canyon to local parks, historic sites and trails. It has funded projects in every state and almost every county—all without depending on taxpayer dollars.

However, the Land and Water Conservation Fund rarely gets all the money it is supposed to. Even worse, despite its thousands of successes, it is in very real danger of effectively disappearing unless champions in Congress stand up and defend it.

Hearing featured foes of the fund

The April 22 hearing marked the first time in recent memory that the entire Land and Water Conservation Fund was made subject to full committee scrutiny. Though some committee members strongly supported the program, others wanted to advance so-called “reforms” that would hinder its essential conservation mission.

During the hearing, critics of the program argued for the continued diversion of LWCF money to unrelated projects. If lawmakers ignore LWCF’s achievements in the months ahead, it could create dangerous momentum leading up to the deadline for Congress to save this American institution.

How the Land and Water Conservation Fund works

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado), a beneficiary of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Credit: daveynin, flickr.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is based on a simple idea: when you deplete the earth’s finite natural resources, some of the proceeds should pay to strengthen conservation.

Companies that drill for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf pay a portion of their revenues into the LWCF, and that money goes into a trust fund to acquire “inholdings”—pieces of private land within the borders of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other protected sites—from willing sellers. 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 habitat, ensure safe passage for wildlife, expand opportunities for outdoor recreation and safeguard historic sites and resources.

LWCF is also used to provide matching grants to states and communities so they can create and protect local parks, trails and other green spaces—the places close to home that you might visit on the weekend. At least 100 of these projects have been funded through LWCF in each state.

A promise not kept

Since the 1970s, LWCF’s annual funding level has been set at $900 million. However, Congress has rarely seen fit to appropriate all of that money for its intended use—only twice in nearly four decades.

Over the lifetime of the program, LWCF has only received about 45 percent of the authorized money set aside for it. Instead of using the program’s trust fund to pay for land conservation, Congress has diverted tens of billions of dollars to other projects. This leaves LWCF projects unfinished and pieces of irreplaceable land unprotected.

Despite Congress’ neglect, LWCF has been incredibly effective, returning about $4 in economic value for every $1 invested in it. LWCF also remains popular among most Americans: recent polls found that 75 percent of western voters support the concept behind the LWCF and 85 percent of voters generally want the LWCF's commitment honored in full.

Time is running out

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina/Tennessee) received Land and Water Conservation Fund money. Credit: coloneljohnbritt, flickr.

Over the past 50 years, many of our communities have been shaped by LWCF in ways we probably don’t even recognize, whether by the maintenance of a running trail or the preservation of a historic battlefield. Now, that great legacy is in peril.

Fortunately, the program still has some lawmakers on its side, and we are fighting to ensure that they hear your voices. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) recently introduced a bill to permanently reauthorize LWCF. In March, a bill from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) proposed to do the same while guaranteeing full funding automatically, ending the diversion of LWCF’s money to other projects. Senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle have voiced their support for LWCF.

As senators heard testimony on how the LWCF should be funded and how those funds should be distributed, we hope they remembered the great work it has done in protecting wildlands and opening access to outdoor recreation.

Help us fight to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund!

Act now: We can’t let America’s most important conservation program expire!


See also: The clock is ticking for the Land and Water Conservation Fund