Land and Water Conservation Fund Expires, Battle for Reform Continues

Published October 27, 2015

At midnight on October 1, for the first time since it was established in 1965, Congress allowed the authorization to lapse for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The 50-year-old law pays for federal land acquisitions, private land conservation easements, state recreation projects and endangered species grants funded annually by revenues from offshore oil and gas development. Since the revenues generated offshore oil and gas payments annually cosistently exceed appropriations for land purchases,  the fund has accumulated approximately $20 billion. 

Appropriators will still be able to draw from the fund when it comes time to pass another spending bill Dec. 11, however, oil and gas companies have stopped paying into it. 

Because objection were raised, Environment & Energy Daily (10/1/15) reports Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) decided against asking for unanimous consent to pass a 60-day extension. 

Some in Congress may try to reauthorize the fund through a rider to a long-term surface transportation bill or in an omnibus spending bill in December or even as part of a bill to lift the ban on selling crude overseas as a way to pick up support for exports from moderate Democrats. 

Finger Pointing

Democrats and their environmental lobbyist allies blamed House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) for stalling progress in the lower chamber after a compromise to permanently extend LWCF was reached by bipartisan leaders on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Bishop argued, at recently appropriated levels of roughly $300 million annually, with $20 billion still on the LWCF balance sheet, which appropriators can spend as they see fit, it would take more than 50 years to deplete the fund. 

“Anyone who claims that there’s no money or the money’s going to be cut off, that’s crap,” E&E Daily quoted Bishop as saying. 

Reform, ‘Think Big’

Bishop supports reauthorization, but he wants more LWCF money sent to states and to possibly to support other federal programs like education. 

“Think big,” Bishop said. “No one’s got a vision of what this fund could be.” 

Other’s pushing to reform the LWCF include ranchers and researchers at the the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont., a fiscally conservative group that has argued against using LWCF funds to enlarge federal land holdings. 

For instance, the conservative Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sent a joint letter to Bishop’s committee opposing land acquisitions and urging the LWCF be reformed before it is extended.

“We do realize that there may be certain times that land acquisition may be necessary,” the groups said. “However, we also believe that certain protective measures should be put in place to ensure that the tool is not abused.” 

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA), chairman of the panel that appropriates LWCF money to Interior and the Forest Service, said he’s deferring to authorizers — Bishop — on the act’s future. Calvert agrees with Bishop states need “more input” and with critics of the LWCF, it needs reform. 

Maintenance Needed

Shawn Regan, a former National Park Service (NPS) employee and currently a research fellow at PERC, argues before reauthorization, the program should be reformed to allow some of the money from the LWCF to be used to maintain and improve the lands the federal government already has, rather than devoted solely to buying more land. 

In an September 24 article in The Hill, Regan notes, “In its current form, … LWCF funds can only be used for acquiring more public lands. They cannot be used for the care and maintenance of existing federal lands. In other words, the LWCF allows the federal government to purchase more land, but it does not provide any means of taking care of those lands — or the critical needs that exist on the hundreds of millions of acres the federal government already owns.”

“The federal government controls more than 635 million acres of land in the United States, including 62 percent of Idaho, 67 percent of Utah and more than 80 percent of Nevada,” writes Regan. “Since the LWCF was enacted in 1965, the government has spent more than $10 billion acquiring 5 million acres of land, mostly in the West.” 

The government, according to Regan, and seemingly backed up by the government’s own agencies, is unable to take care of the lands it already owns. The NPS reports it has an $11.5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance projects. While the maintenance backlog for the Interior Department, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, is estimated between $13.2 billion and $19.3 billion.

Regan details some of the backlog, “Across the entire federal estate, billions of dollars are needed for wastewater system repairs, campground and trail maintenance, building repairs, and the transportation infrastructure necessary for people to access and enjoy public lands.”

“As conservationists, we should insist that conservation does not mean simply acquiring more land; it means ensuring resources are available to adequately care for the land,” Regan concludes.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.