The Land and Water Conservation Fund: another big 50th anniversary for a vital conservation law

Sept. 3 marked the 50th anniversary of the  Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is responsible for protecting some of our nation’s most iconic natural and historic landmarks, from national parks and wildlife refuges to local parks in our own neighborhoods. Though not as celebrated as the Wilderness Act, also marking its semi-centennial in September, the LWCF has been a vital tool for 20th-  and 21st-century conservation.

In 1964, Congress passed the LWCF and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law, setting the framework to preserve over 5 million acres (and counting) of irreplaceable land from coast to coast.  Over the past 50 years, many of our communities have been shaped by this law in ways we probably don’t even recognize, whether by the maintenance of a running trail or the preservation of a historic battlefield. Now a mainstay of our parks and other shared places, this program was born of an elegant idea: that the depletion of one finite resource should benefit the infinite resource that is our natural heritage.

Read report: “50 Years of Conserving America the Beautiful”

North Cascades National Park (Washington). Credit: Michael Silverman (NPS), flickr.

The history of the LWCF

In the late 1950s, national parks were incredibly popular. In fact, the huge crowds made park maintenance increasingly difficult, and in some cases even cut into the peacefulness and serenity that made these places so special. Recognizing the increasing need for outdoor recreation opportunities, Congress convened the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) to consider what America’s outdoor recreation needs would be both 20 years and 50 years hence. The findings of that commission, released in 1961, have been credited with paving the way for a number of conservation laws, but many consider the LWCF to be the most significant policy initiative to emerge from that process.

Among other things, the ORRRC concluded that the federal government and individual states should act to preserve and develop outdoor recreation resources for all Americans, including “acquir[ing] additional [public land] areas where necessary.” It suggested a new program be established to fund those additions. After the report was published, legislation was introduced to launch such a program, and, during his final year in office, President John F. Kennedy emphasized its importance. Bipartisan support developed around the idea, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act passed both the House and Senate in 1964. Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed it into law at the same ceremony as the Wilderness Act, making September 3, 1964 one of the most important dates in land conservation history.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii). Credit: Keith Burnett, flickr.

How the LWCF works

In 1964, national park acreage had barely grown since World War II, and LWCF thus represented a critical step forward: a long-term investment in public lands conservation. The bill authorized expenditure of up to $900 million each year for acquiring park inholdings (parcels of private land within the borders of parks, offered by willing sellers). By acquiring these pieces of land, the federal government could manage entire landscapes , making it easier to protect wildlife habitat, connect trails, and provide access a variety of outdoor recreation activities.

The money to do this was to be taken from the sale of surplus federal property, park entrance and permit fees and a motorboat fuel tax. In 1968, revenue from offshore oil leases was added to the list (the vast majority of LWCF monies now come from the latter source). Congress crafted this “asset-for-asset” reinvestment concept so that there would always be money available to add on to our parks and protected areas. Even Interior Secretary James G. Watt, later heavily criticized for presiding over a Reagan administration that exploited public lands and weakened conservation measures, praised the LWCF as “one of the most effective preservation and conservation programs in America” in his 1981 introductory address before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In addition to federal land protection, the LWCF is used to provide matching grants to states and communities so they can protect local parks and ballfields. In this capacity, the program has supported tens of thousands of close-to-home conservation projects that enrich the lives of countless Americans in all 50 states and nearly every single county.

In the years since it became law, the LWCF has been used to protect land that completes or protects sites as varied as national forests and historic battlefields, all without receiving taxpayer money. Though its name may be unfamiliar, you have almost certainly enjoyed some of the places it has supported, from American icons like Gettysburg National Military Park, the Grand Canyon  and Everglades National Park, to local trails and ball fields just around the corner.

Muir Woods National Monument (California). Credit: Brian & Jaclyn Drum, flickr.

A commitment ignored

As the conservation focus of the 1960s faded, LWCF remained a popular and effective program—and it was needed more than ever. Despite this, the Reagan administration suspended further park purchases in 1981, ushering in a long period when little money was put into the LWCF. Interior Secretary Watts effectively recanted his past pro-LWCF statement, saying that his department’s focus should be capital improvements and repairs in existing parks, rather than protecting new land. Many critics saw this as a way to freeze land conservation in its tracks.

Though the LWCF has been used to protect iconic landscapes in all 50 states, and for over 42,000 state and local projects touching every county in the U.S, preventing its funds from being siphoned away has become a perennial struggle. More than $18 billion has been diverted from the LWCF trust fund by Congress over the course of the program’s life, and in the last year, nearly $600 million was routed away from it, leaving many development projects unfinished and parcels of land unprotected. Funding levels have approached the amount authorized in the original legislation only twice, even as new pressures lead wildlands and shared spaces to become developed, fragmented or otherwise damaged.

Read a report on the damages of years of budget cuts to LWCF and other programs

Currently, a backlog of land acquisition needs in the tens of billions of dollars exists across the nation. In withholding the funds intended for LWCF, Congress has ignored the backlog, and also the will of most Americans: an October 2013 survey found that 85 percent of voters want the fund’s commitment honored in full. What’s more, an analysis of the return on investment from LWCF funds found that every $1 invested returned $4 in economic value. Put simply, the LWCF is a force for good...and Congress shouldn’t  neglect it.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (Nevada). Credit: BLM, flickr.

Reason for optimism

This past February, President Barack Obama’s  proposed a budget for fiscal year 2015 that represented a step toward restoring funding to conservation programs. That proposal contained full and permanent funding for LWCF at $900 million, as was specified in the original 1964 law. Recently, a record number of bipartisan House and Senate members signed letters in support of the LWCF. Clearly we have not entirely forgotten the importance of this program.

But public lands remain in dire need. Other federal budget proposals have recommended that LWCF funds pay for federal agencies’ operations backlog rather than their intended purpose, echoing past attempts to undermine the work of protecting and growing our public lands network. It is vital that we keep our promise to past generations--by preserving public lands for our children and grandchildren.

This is a critical time for LWCF, and momentum is building in Congress for a long-term solution to the program’s funding needs, as well as the program’s reauthorization before it is set to expire next year. Below are just a few examples of places whose preservation the LWCF has aided (state-by-state lists can be found here).

A few more wild places protected with LWCF's help:

Acadia National Park (Maine)

Credit: Jim Liestman, flickr.

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (Montana, Wyoming)

Credit: NPS

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia)

Credit: USFWS, flickr.

Sen Bernardino National Forest (California)

Credit: Ron Kroetz, flickr.

Katmai National Park (Alaska)

Credit: M. Fitz (NPS), flickr.

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Credit: NPS, flickr.

Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

Credit: Chris de Rham, flickr.


Read a report on the significance of the LWCF:

The Land and Water Conservation Fund: 50 Years of Conserving America the Beautiful by The Wilderness Society