In 1964, Congress took a bold step to mitigate, at least partially, the environmental threat of oil and gas extraction, with the establishment of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF directs hundreds of millions of dollars into coffers reserved for acquiring and preserving access to public lands. Those funds are collected from royalties the federal government earns from offshore oil drilling leases.
At the federal level, that money is most often used to acquire and preserve private lands that are within the boundaries of already-held public lands. At the state level, grants from the LWCF are used to purchase conservation easements and establish and maintain access to public lands, among other crucial needs.
But the LWCF is in trouble. Though this isn’t necessarily new.
Last week, Congress began debating how much to fund the LWCF. By law, the LWCF has a $900 million cap, though in more than 50 years of existence, it’s only been funded at the max level twice. In the past decade, funding levels have hovered at near $400 million, with the rest of the $900 million being diverted into the general treasury.
The Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget looked to cut the LWCF’s funding by roughly 90 percent, crippling the popular conservation program to the point of irrelevance. This is on the heels of a similar attempted gutting of the LWCF in 2018, which Congress ignored, instead allotting roughly $425 million for the program.
Initial reports are that the House will again reject such drastic cuts, instead proposing a roughly 15 percent reduction to last year’s LWCF budget. Once the House agrees on 2019 spending levels, the Senate has final say.
“We’re counting on the Senate to hold the line,” said Amy Lindholm, LWCF Coalition Manager.
But the LWCF could have even larger concerns than funding for 2019. The program itself is set to expire at the end of September. Three years ago it was actually allowed to expire before Congress came together to reauthorize a three-year extension. Back then, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah led a charge to decrease the acquisition of more federal lands. A similar battle could set up when it comes time for Congress to reauthorize the program again.
Advocacy groups are calling for a permanent reauthorization to stabilize funding levels and the make the funding process more efficient.
“A lot of dynamics are similar to what happened in 2015,” said Lindholm. “We’re pretty confident that at least another short-term extension will be possible. But there’s a chilling effect on the whole process because of the constant uncertainty.”
One of the biggest elements of uncertainty is Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. As a member of the House back in 2015, Zinke voted in support of permanent reauthorization of the LWCF. He now, however, appears to accept a gutting the LWCF and has expressed support for the Trump administration’s drastic budget cuts for the program.
“Zinke was great while in the House, so we were happy to hear of his nomination to Secretary,” Lindholm explained. “Unfortunately right now, he’s very vocal about not funding the LWCF, instead focusing on the [maintenance] backlog of the NPS. He says he supports the LWCF but his budget cuts it.”
Unlike money that would be spent to further fund the NPS’s budget, which does come from taxes collected from the public, no taxpayer dollars contribute to the LWCF. Because funds for the NPS and the LWCF come from completely separate sources, Zinke could quite easily maintain support for permanent reauthorization of the LWCF while directing money to the NPS at the same time.
It remains to be seen whether he will, or how much influence he’ll wield when it comes to reauthorizing the fund later this summer.
The LWCF maintains a transparent list here of how funds are allocated and spent.
If you’re so inclined, The Trust for Public Lands has prepared an online petition to put pressure on Congress to continue supporting the LWCF. It can be signed here.
Photo: Chris Morris, Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont