|  05/20/2014

The Fight for the Land and Water Conservation Fund

By Rob Drieslein

The standard canon in retracing America’s conservation legacy begins with Civil War veterans in Congress who, at the turn of the 20th Century, passed landmark legislation like the Lacey Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It culminates with Teddy Roosevelt mugging with John Muir, then bullying through legislation for national parks and monuments, the U.S. Forest Service, and the beginning of America’s national wildlife refuge system.
All were pivotal moments in establishing the nation’s credentials as a leader in global conservation efforts. They’ve also provided a remarkable amount of wildlife and hunter habitat in North America that Pheasants Forever members enjoy every fall. But those efforts didn’t end in 1909.
The Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act became law in 1937, and the 1960s and ’70s saw presidents Johnson and Nixon sign legislation like the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. Another, perhaps lesser known though equally important bipartisan act of Congress occurred in 1964: the creation of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
One of America’s great ideas, the Land and Water Conservation Fund rests on a simple, logical premise. It takes a portion of the revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing and reinvests them in onshore conservation. In other words, companies using public resources for profit must pay a small portion of their revenues back to the American people. The LWCF then uses its proceeds to provide funds and matching grants to federal, state and local governments for land and water acquisition and easements to benefit all citizens.
Incredible benefits
The billions of LWCF dollars invested since 1965 have created a wide swath of public facilities, from urban youth baseball diamonds to national parks and monuments across all 50 states. The list of national forests, wildlife refuges and recreation areas that have received LWCF monies would amaze even the most strident public lands advocate.
Joe Duggan, vice president of corporate affairs for Pheasants Forever, believes anyone interested in upland game birds, waterfowl, big game, or simply access to the outdoors should have a healthy respect for the LWCF. Critical habitat nationwide has received permanent protection via LWCF funds or a combination of LWCF, state and private investments.
“Our economy requires fuel, but at same time, society recognizes that there are consequences when and where energy development occurs. So it’s appropriate that an account like LWCF was established,” Duggan said. “It makes sense to reinvest proceeds from our natural resources if we want to ensure our outdoor heritage.”
From the Northern Tallgrass Prairie project of Iowa and Minnesota, to Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area of Montana to the Cimarron National Grassland of Kansas, LWCF dollars have funded upland bird habitat across the pheasant range. Hunter access via federal waterfowl production areas, grassland easements on the Rocky Mountain Front and national wildlife refuge system acreage has expanded thanks to the LWCF.
The state assistance branch of LWCF provides matching grants to help states and local communities protect parks and recreation resources. The Washington, D.C.-based LWCF Coalition (which includes over 1,000 organizations, including Pheasants Forever) says that more than $3 billion in LWCF grants to states over the life of the program has leveraged $7 billion-plus in nonfederal matching funds.
A sad legacy of underfunding
When Congress created the LWCF, it authorized the fund with a budget cap of $900 million per year. Shockingly, while oil and gas revenues have gone up, dollars to the LWCF have gone down. Why? Because the politicians Americans have elected to Congress since 1965 have fully funded LWCF a grand total of two times.
During the latest Interior budget negotiations for Fiscal Year 2014, conservation advocates gave a huge, collective sigh of relief when budget negotiators included $300 million for LWCF. That’s right, a whole one-third of full funding. That was a victory for conservationists who have seen LWCF funding drop significantly lower in recent years – to just over $100 million in 2007, for example.
Where’s the rest of the $900 million? Congress regularly diverts that money to other priorities with bigger teams of lobbyists representing their interests in Washington. That wholesale robbery of dollars clearly earmarked for conservation accelerated in the early 1980s and has fluctuated the past 25 years. Groups like the Trust for Public Land say congressional shenanigans have shortchanged the program by $18 billion over the past 46 years.
Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, an umbrella organization of the nation’s top conservation groups, including Pheasants Forever, noted that the U.S. House zeroed out LWCF funding in its initial 2014 appropriations markup.
“That’s not helpful,” Kline said. “We have to make sure politicians recognize the importance of this program, and need it to be as close to full funding as possible.”
Sportsmen foot the bill for a disproportionate amount of conservation work, Kline noted, and with a backlog in public lands easement and acquisition opportunities, sportsmen should be first in line insisting that Congress keep its LWCF funding promises.
Looking ahead: a good fight
On the positive side, President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget recommends nearly full funding for LWCF. Here’s the first simple message sportsmen and women can convey to their political leaders in Washington: Support the president’s LWCF 2015 budget proposal.
Longer term, an intelligent bill in the U.S. Senate, would end the wholesale theft that occurs annually with LWCF. The bill, S. 338, which had 40 bipartisan co-sponsors as of early this year, would mandate dedicated annual funding of $900 million to the fund. Kline considers the bill a no-brainer.
“We need to take LWCF off budget, per the original spirit of the act and make funding mandatory, so it’s not subject to these annual appropriations that fluctuate so wildly,” he said.
The LWCF has an even bigger issue looming in 2015: reauthorization. President John F. Kennedy first proposed the LWCF, and next year will mark 50 years since the landmark legislation became law. It will cease to exist without reauthorization by September 2015. Members of the U.S. House and Senate need to hear from their constituents that reauthorization is an important priority.
Public land advocates can feel like lonely voices in the U.S. Capitol during these belt-tightening budgetary days, but the LWCF has an edge that gets the attention of U.S. congressmen: It delivers money back to their districts.
Late last year, 28 Republican members of Congress signed a letter to the chairman of the House committee that oversees Interior appropriations. The letter urged LWCF reauthorization and noted that the lands funded by the LWCF support an outdoor recreation and tourism sector that contributes a total of $1.06 trillion annually to the American economy, including 9.4 million jobs.
“Recent polling has found that fully 85 percent of the American people say that Congress should honor its commitment to LWCF,” the letter stated. “Accordingly, we urge you to take advantage of any opportunity that arises… to reauthorize the program and realize the promise of the LWCF into the future.”
During an era when Congress has a historically poor approval rating, the LWCF represents an opportunity for cooperation and reclaiming public goodwill, Kline says.
“We need to reauthorize the program, and we have bipartisan support for doing so,” Kline said. “Congress just needs to get this done.”
A final point: Even if Congress does reauthorize the LWCF, some state congressional delegations do a poor job of bringing those dollars back home. Next time your congressman or woman visits your local habitat banquet, ask if LWCF dollars are funding habitat in your state.
For Jim Leach, refuge supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Bloomington, Minnesota, LWCF is one of two primary funding sources his agency relies on to acquire lands for national wildlife refuges and waterfowl production areas. In Minnesota, LWCF has been used to acquire lands for Northern Tallgrass Prairie NWR, Minnesota Valley NWR and the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
“Just looking at our Northern Tallgrass Prairie NWR, there currently is a backlog of willing sellers interested in selling significant acreage of native prairie to the FWS in both Minnesota and Iowa. Unfortunately our fiscal year 2014 budget did not include any LWCF dollars to protect this critical habitat. Annually, the FWS could easily spend between $2-3 million on the protection of native prairie in these two states.”
Those are landowners who want to sell, if only Congress would appropriate the dollars it promised back in 1965.
Bottom line, America’s sportsmen need to begin demanding full funding and reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“(LWCF) is really nothing more than a savings account to ensure the qualities of a landscape that we cherish exists for the next generation,” Duggan said. “These are our dollars, and our natural heritage will pay the consequences if we continue to allow Congress to not keep its promises.”
For more information, visit lwcfcoalition.org.
Advocating for LWCF
How can you support the Land and Water Conservation Fund? Remember these five bullet points.
•The Obama administration’s Department of Interior appears committed to strong LWCF funding. Tell your political representatives you support the administration on strong Fiscal Year 2015 funding for LWCF.
• Does your U.S. Senator support S338, which would mandate full, permanent funding ($900 million annually) of the LWCF? If not, urge him or her to co-sponsor the bill.
• As of press time, no U.S. House version of S338 exists, but you can still urge your representative to push for full funding.
•Support 2015 reauthorization of the LWCF.
• Press your representative to bring LWCF dollars back your district. That will drive demand for funding the entire program and reauthorization.