Hopeful news out of Washington, DC, as a Senate committee passed a bill that would permanently extend the popular but embattled Land and Water Conservation Fund, and, crucially, mandate full funding for the important public lands program.

The LWCF allocates up to $900 million annually for public land funding through royalties earned by the federal government from offshore energy production, though it’s only hit the max allocation once; typically the funding total is roughly $400 million. The program technically expired on September 30, but there were hints a bipartisan solution could be coming that would restore the program.

On Tuesday those hints came to at least partial fruition. With a vote of 16-7, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee easily passed a bill offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), with five Republican senators joining eleven Democrats to move Cantwell’s bill to a vote by the full Senate.

The House Natural Resources Committee advanced its own bill earlier this summer, though it does not guarantee full funding as the Senate committee bill does. The House and the Senate will have to agree on final language in a bill that reconciles the two before they can vote them ahead for a signature by the president. Of course, any bill that restores the LWCF could find its way crammed into a larger spending bill with any number of compromises to move the thing through the byzantine horrors of Congressional procedure.

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Though the LWCF has expired, it still has billions of dollars in the bank, so the program isn’t dead. It just can’t collect royalties from offshore drilling until Congress and the President formally restore the 54-year-old program.

The expiration of the LWCF will be quite a problem for long-term public lands projects that can take years to put together, according to Jonathan Asher, Senior Representative for Government Relations at The Wilderness Society.

But, the fact that permanent authorization was part of both the House and Senate committee bills, and that the Senate version included full-funding, provides hope that meaningful progress could be made toward not only restoring the LWCF, but strengthening it.

“The committees buying into these bills is a huge step forward,” Asher said. “External attention and pressure by constituents has moved these bills as far as they’ve gotten.”

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Both permanent authorization of the LWCF and the possibility of fully-funding the program are the top two items on wish lists of conservation groups that have been clamoring for strengthening the program for decades.

“We’d be a much different country if we’d [fully] funded this all along,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) in a conference call Tuesday morning in support of the bill’s passage.

What’s next?

There’s a chance that a bill restoring the LWCF will be added as part of a much larger packaged spending bill that will need to be authorized by early December. Failing that, Congress enters a lame duck session between the November midterms and a new Congress being sworn in this January.

But, there’s real hope that the LWCF will see restoration and possibly permanent authorization—even the holy grail of total funding—sometime in the coming months.

Photo: Jon Tester