Among the $4.1 trillion in spending requests contained in the Obama administration’s 2017 budget proposal is $4.9 billion designated for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
The allotted funds would pay for additional land acquisitions and programs that would limit or close entirely previously allowed agricultural and commercial uses of the lands purchased.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), created in 1965, is dedicated to acquiring lands for the federal estate and helping to fund state land purchases. LWCF is funded by royalties from offshore oil and gas production. LWCF funding was allowed to lapse in 2015 for the first time in its 50-year history. At the time funding lapsed, LWCF contained $20 billion.
The lapse occurred amid disagreements in the U.S. Congress over proposed reforms to the program, including reforms that would have limited future federal land purchases and would have allowed some LWCF funds to be used to enhance, maintain, and preserve the lands the federal government already owns.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, released a draft bill to reform LWCF in November 2015. Bishop says his bill would “restore” LWCF to the role it was originally intended to have when it passed.
“The law’s original intent was perverted long ago, when the federal government’s powerful drive to acquire more land gradually began crowding out the stateside program,” Bishop said. “This is what we are seeking to restore.
“The Obama administration operates [LWCF] like it’s their own personal piggy bank,” said Bishop. “They refuse to tell us where the money is going and for what purpose.”
Despite the concerns expressed by Bishop and other members of Congress who support LWCF reform, Congress extended LWCF funding for three years without making meaningful changes when it passed the December 2015 omnibus budget bill.
Budget Requests Dedicated Spending
President Barack Obama’s proposed budget, released February 9, requests Congress to provide $900 million in funds for LCWF, the full annual amount authorized by law. Congress authorized just $300 million in funding for LWCF in 2015 and $450 million in 2016.
To prevent the law from lapsing again, Obama’s budget requests Congress make LWCF permanent and provides a minimum of $425 million in annual mandatory funding.
The 2017 budget proposes Congress increase actual spending on land acquisitions made through LWCF. Under current federal law, Congress is responsible for authorizing LWCF’s annual spending. The 2017 budget request would double the authorized amount spent for land acquisitions from the fund, from $63.5 million in 2016 to $128 million in 2017.
Massive Maintenance Backlog
Multiple agencies receive money from LWCF to purchase land, including USFS, the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Critics of the LWCF say it’s a mistake to fund a greater amount of land acquisitions at a time when the federal government is struggling to maintain its current land holdings. As of 2014, USFS, BLM, FWS, and NPS had deferred an estimated $18.8 billion in combined maintenance costs.
USFS, with a $5.1 billion backlog of maintenance projects, has struggled to maintain its trails. Only 26 percent of the agency’s trail miles met USFS standards in 2012. Substandard trails create safety risks and environmental harms.
According to a 2016 report from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), one-third of NPS trails were considered to be in “poor” or “seriously deficient” condition. PERC also says multiple parks face water system problems.
Shawn Regan, PERC’s director of publications, says it would be a mistake for the federal government to make new land acquisitions when significant backlogs exist.
“When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging,” said Regan. “When it comes to maintaining our federal lands, we’ve been in a hole for decades, yet we still acquire more federal lands without ensuring that our existing public lands are adequately cared for.”
Regan says the National Park Service recently announced its deferred maintenance backlog has reached $11.9 billion.
“That’s five times as high as [NPS’] entire annual appropriation from Congress,” Regan said. “This just goes to show the federal government should stop acquiring more public lands until it can adequately care for the lands it already controls.”
Opportunities for Reform?
PERC’s report suggests seven possible reforms for federal land management.
“Our first recommendation is to reform the Land and Water Conservation Fund to ensure any LWCF funds are used to address the existing maintenance backlog in our national parks before it is used to acquire new lands,” said Regan.
Regan says making funds available for deferred maintenance would allow agencies to better manage their lands.
“If park managers were able to tap LWCF funds for facilities maintenance, [instead of just land acquisitions], the park managers themselves would be able determine what’s best for each individual park,” said Regan.
PERC’s report also suggests disposing of some federal lands and reauthorizing legislation that would allow park managers to charge and retain recreation fees.
“Under the status quo, LWCF will continue to lead to massive federal land grabs that compromise private property rights and economic opportunity for the American people,” Rep. Bishop said. “This must and will change.”
Ann N. Purvis ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.