The United States is losing its natural lands at an alarming rate. In the first decades of this century, according to a study by the Center for American Progress, a staggering 24 million acres of green space was swallowed up by urban expansion, industrial development and other human encroachments on the natural world — that’s the equivalent of nine Grand Canyon national parks. This loss of nature has devastating consequences, putting critical wildlife habitats at risk, threatening the health of our communities and impeding our ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The struggle to protect the lands that remain untarnished by development has never been more urgent.
At the forefront of this struggle is a federal conservation program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Created by Congress in the 1960s, the LWCF was the product of bipartisan recognition of the importance of protecting America’s natural lands and ensuring that all Americans have access to the great outdoors. For 55 years, the program has been a key source of funding for the conservation of public lands and expansion of outdoor recreational opportunities in communities across the country. From urban parks and playgrounds to the great unspoiled wildernesses of our national parks, forests and recreation areas, many of the lands that have escaped development have only been able to do so thanks to the LWCF.
In its primary role, the LWCF provides funds for land purchases by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to set aside land for conservation and public enjoyment and ensure these areas remain off limits to development. Over the years, this funding has helped pay for the acquisition and protection of millions of acres of natural lands across America, including some of the country’s most iconic landscapes. Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mojave National Preserve, the Florida Everglades and countless other wild places have benefited from LWCF grants.
The LWCF also authorizes a matching grant program to help states and local governments acquire land for outdoor recreation and fund the development and maintenance of recreational facilities in local communities. This “state side” program has channeled billions of dollars into more than 41,000 state and local park projects, including sports fields, playgrounds, public swimming pools, hiking trails, campgrounds, nature centers and other facilities, as well as land purchases that have brought millions of acres of vulnerable land under the protection of state parks systems.
Under the federal law that created the LWCF, the fund is authorized to accrue $900 million each year to make available for conservation projects, the majority of that revenue coming from royalties paid by energy companies engaged in offshore oil and gas drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf.
However, these revenues cannot be spent unless appropriated by Congress, which means that the actual level of funding available from the LWCF for the purposes for which it was created is determined through the annual appropriations process. In practice, only twice in the LWCF’s history has the full $900 million been appropriated and made available for conservation purposes. Instead, nearly every year, Congress siphons off much of the money owed to the fund to fill budget holes and pay for other, non-conservation projects. In total, less than half of the $40.9 billion accrued in the LWCF over the course of its existence has been appropriated and used for the purposes for which the fund was intended.
In other words, had Congress appropriated the full $900 million each year to put toward conservation projects, as originally intended under the terms of the LWCF’s creation, twice as much money could have flowed toward protecting natural lands around the country.
In 2019, Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund — an important first step toward ensuring that the fund can continue to protect, preserve and manage America’s unspoiled landscapes. But in order to fulfill the LWCF’s original promise to the American people, the federal government needs to commit to permanently fund the program at its mandated $900 million total, ensuring that the full amount the fund is entitled to accrue each year is made available to support the conservation of our natural lands for generations to come.
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