It’s time for Congress to fund our most important parks program

After being neglected for years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund deserves long-term certainty

Hannah Rider
Jun 19, 2019 · 5 min read
Rocky Mountain National Park

Since 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been an integral part of protecting our parks and public lands and enhancing recreation opportunities across the United States. You’ve almost certainly visited a LWCF park⁠ — since the fund was created, it has had a significant impact in conserving special places, from wilderness areas to neighborhood pools, national parks to baseball diamonds. Now, Congress is working on legislation that would guarantee full, dedicated funding for the program, a guarantee that our parks and public lands have long deserved.

After letting LWCF expire last year, Congress thankfully included permanent reauthorization for the program in a sweeping bipartisan public lands package that recently became law, marking a major success for conservation. However, while reauthorization allows for the continued existence of the program, it did not guarantee any funding. Around the same time, the Trump administration proposed a Fiscal Year 2020 budget that would have effectively zeroed out the program, despite broad bipartisan support evident in Congress.

How the Land and Water Conservation Fund works

LWCF uses a percentage of royalties from offshore oil and gas development to support conservation across the country. The premise is simple: revenues from the extraction of publicly-owned energy resources are dedicated to the protection of America’s public lands. Allocated funds are divided between two sources: national public land projects and state and local grants. For national public land projects, there are four agencies that can use these funds: the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. Projects range from improving wildlife habitat to purchasing privately-owned land “inholdings” from willing sellers to create continuity and access throughout parks and public lands. For state and local grants, funds are used to implement their recreation and conservation priorities, from state parks to local bike paths.

Blue Forest Rock Formations | Petrified Forest National Park

Currently, actual funding for LWCF is at the mercy of Congress’ annual appropriations process. This annual scramble for money has nearly always resulted in LWCF receiving significantly less funding than originally intended, kneecapping a program that is supported by the vast majority of Americans.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, which would take LWCF funding out of the annual appropriations process and allocate $900 million each year for the program. This critical bill would guarantee that LWCF has the resources to accomplish its intended purpose.

5 things you should know about LWCF

  1. Over the past 5 decades, LWCF projects have been completed in every county in the United States. From wilderness areas to urban parks, LWCF projects impact the lives of all Americans.
  2. LWCF is an important tool for addressing the maintenance backlog on our public lands. Currently, there is an estimated $30 billion backlog of maintenance on lands managed by the Department of Interior. States have reported another $27 billion backlog of projects that would qualify for LWCF funding. LWCF is imperative for addressing these languishing conservation and recreation projects, as well as preventing our maintenance backlog numbers from growing in the future.
  3. Although oil and gas revenues are dedicated annually to the fund, they currently still need to be allocated by Congress. Factoring in inflation, the $900 million benchmark set by Congress in 1978 would be $3.6 billion. To ensure that LWCF remains effective in the 21st century, Congress could increase the program’s annual authorization and index it to inflation.
  4. Every dollar spent on LWCF projects creates a $4 return on investment. An analysis by the Trust for Public Land looked at 16 completed LWCF projects and found that “approximately 10.6 million people visit these sixteen federal units each year and spend $511 million in the surrounding local communities,” demonstrating the significant economic benefit this program provides.
  5. LWCF has a visionary scope, and time-tested success. Each year it provides critical funding for:
  • National parks: National parks are suffering from a lack of adequate funding for infrastructure. This has resulted in nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance as of 2018. LWCF is an important part of addressing the current backlog, as well as preventing future build up of projects.
  • Recreation: LWCF improves recreation access and opportunities across the country. Throughout our national public lands, there are parcels of privately-owned land. These “inholdings” can disrupt outdoor recreation access and create obstacles for efficient land management. LWCF is the only source of funding available for the federal government to protect these parcels when willing sellers want to conserve their land for future generations, preventing development and ensuring access for recreation.
  • Forests: The Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by LWCF, helps to protect privately-owned forests through partnerships with states and landowners. Since its inception in 1990, this program has helped to protect over 2.6 million acres. According to the Forest Service, “These ‘working forests’ protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat, forest products, opportunities for recreation and other public benefits.”
  • Wildlife: LWCF protects wildlife through both national and local programs. The Fish and Wildlife Service uses funds to conserve threatened habitat for wildlife on public lands, such as National Wildlife Refuges. LWCF also funds the Cooperative Endangered Species Act, which provides grants to local communities for small-scale wildlife conservation.
  • Communities: Each year, LWCF supports states and local communities matching grants for the development of outdoor recreation areas and facilities. Since 1965, LWCF has provided over 40,400 grants, amounting to over $4 billion, across America.
Bear River National Wildlife Refuge | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

There’s a reason why LWCF has sweeping bipartisan support in a divided Congress. It’s a commonsense solution to the threat of development to America’s natural spaces: A small amount of revenue from an extractive industry can conserve public lands, protect waters, and improve communities across the country without any added cost to taxpayers.

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Public lands and the outdoors, from the Center for Western Priorities

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