Politics

Congress Fails To Reauthorize the Land And Water Conservation Fund

| by Kathryn Schroeder
Grand CanyonGrand Canyon

Sally Jewell, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, issued a statement on Oct. 1 after Congress allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire.

“After 50 years of resounding success in enriching America’s great outdoors, the Land and Water Conservation Fund needlessly faces an uncertain future,” Jewell wrote in a statement published on the Department of the Interior’s website. “I am extremely disappointed that, despite overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress has allowed this innovative and effective program to expire.

"As a result, America's national parks are now at a higher risk of private development within their borders, we will have fewer tools to protect access to hunting and fishing spots, and local parks and open space projects in all 50 states may face delays or cancelation in the year ahead.”

The Land and Water Conversation Fund was created in 1965 as a bipartisan commitment to protect America's natural resources and provide recreational opportunities. National parks, like the Grand Canyon, are protected under the fund, as well as national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails and ball fields in every state.

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The fund is paid for with non-taxpayer dollars. It was established as a commitment by Congress to the American people that a small portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling would go to outdoor recreation and conservation to offset the depletion of resources.

By not taking action to reauthorize the fund, offshore oil and gas producers will no longer be required to pay into the program and reinstating such a requirement may prove to be very difficult in the GOP-controlled Congress, High Country News reports.

All of the appropriations that were in the fund before it expired will now go to the general treasury to be used elsewhere.

“You can see just how extreme some House Republicans really are when a popular conservation program with a spotless, fifty-year history of bipartisan reauthorization expires thanks to their partisan games,” Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said in a statement. “They can’t pass a highway bill, they can’t fund the government, they’re still struggling with a defense bill, and now they insist that LWCF funding has to stop.”

Congress is authorized to allocate up to $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, all of which is provided by royalties paid by energy companies involved in offshore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. It has in the past few years only given the fund about two-thirds of the maximum; as a result, Congress now owes the fund $20 billion.

“This is a paper account with nothing in it — there are only cobwebs," Mary Hollow, Executive Director of Montana-based Prickly Pear Land Trust, said in the Helena Independent Record.

"The $20 billion has already been spent — diverted to fund other things," she added, "… it's inaccurate and unrealistic to think that if LWCF expires and we lose our authorization and revenue source that it would be business as usual.”

Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana believes it is more likely for the fund to be reauthorized if it is attached to another piece of legislation that is considered a must-pass — like the highway and transportation bill or omnibus spending bill—and legislators will look into doing that before year-end.

Grijalva and Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania have co-sponsored a bipartisan permanent reauthorization bill for the LWCF.

“Drawing out the uncertainty over the program’s funding every few years serves no one, especially when our constituents so strongly believe in the LWCF’s mission and value to the country,” Grijalva said. “We should make it permanent, avoid prolonged budget battles and get back to the business of protecting our natural spaces.

"Anything less is a disservice to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt and the generations of Americans who gave us the many beautiful American landscapes we enjoy today.”

Jewell remains hopeful that Congress will do the right thing and continue funding the program.

“I join mayors, governors, and Americans across the country in urging Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund in order to honor our nation’s outdoor heritage," she wrote, "and provide resources to local communities who want to invest in conservation, historic preservation and recreation opportunities.

“Future generations deserve nothing less."

Sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, High Country News, Land & Water Conservation Fund Coalition, Helena Independent Record

Photo Source: B Rosen/Flickr, WikiCommons