Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in 1964 “to protect and enhance our nation’s incomparable array of natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities.” As America’s most essential federal conservation program, LWCF has protected our national and state parks, wildlife refuges and forests; forests and ranches; cultural resources and historic sites; urban parks, backcountry hunting and fishing access; essential water resources, iconic scenery, and a broad array of irreplaceable natural resources. It has done all of these things via funding generated by off-shore oil and gas royalties rather than general taxes.
Yet, for all of these accomplishments, Congress recently let LWCF expire. Is this is a big deal? The answer is yes and no.
Why is LWCF Important to Tennessee and Tennesseans?
LWCF has impacted millions of Americans in Tennessee alone, not to mention the entire country. Areas funded by LWCF include Rocky Fork, the Obed Wild and Scenic River, the Cherokee National Forest, Big South Fork National Recreation Area, Chickamauga National Military Park, Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Lower Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge, Moccasin Bend, Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, Shiloh National Military Park, Stones River National Battlefield, and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
The program has provided more than $81 million towards these projects, some of the most iconic natural areas certainly in Tennessee and arguably, in the country.
But that’s not all. In Tennessee, LWCF has also contributed another $73 million in grants to protect state and local parks and recreation resources. From building hiking and biking trails, to improving community parks, playgrounds and ballfields, this 50:50 matching program is the primary federal investment tool to ensure that families have easy access to public, open spaces.
Lastly, LWCF is responsible for an additional $29 million in funding for the Forest Legacy program which protects working forests from being converted to a non-forest land use.
All total, in 50 years, LWCF has invested a staggering $189 million to help Tennesseans conserve our state’s tremendous natural resources.
So what just happened?
First, let’s look at the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 as a model of what may happen with LWCF. In 1992, Congress allowed the ESA authorization to expire after 19 years of critical conservation impacts. But did ESA disappear? No, it did not, and here’s why.
Even when a bill is passed in Congress, the question of how that bill will be funded is still in play. Funding (back then and today) comes from the congressional appropriations process, which is how ESA was funded after it was created.
So in 1992, even though Congress allowed the enabling legislation for ESA expire, the act and funding for the act were taken up and made part of the appropriations bill. When the appropriations bill passed, the act was reauthorized and funded and continues to be to this day, albeit on recurring annual basis.
This is what is happening to the LWCF. The bill only authorized the conservation work and practices supported and intended by Congress, but it did not also create the funding to support itself. LWCF’s accomplishments have occurred as it has been funded via the appropriations process.
In light of recent events, the law itself and the funding for it will almost certainly be meted out in the congressional appropriations process.
So, to address the question posed at the beginning of this article—Is this a big deal?—here is an answer.
- Yes, it is because it provides yet another example of the failure of our federal legislative process to address simple, straightforward, and fundamental work that Americans consider important.
- Yes, it is because it politicizes an issue at a time when the last thing our country needs is another politicized issue.
- And finally no, because it’s not the end for LWCF. Just like what happened to ESA back in 1992, the most important effort to save LWCF will be via the congressional appropriations process and this, we believe, offers a unique opportunity that should be seized.
An opportunity for a more comprehensive discussion
With these developments comes an opportunity to have a more full comprehensive conversation about improving LWCF to address conservation challenges that have arisen since its original passage in 1964.
For example, public land access is a significant issue in many parts of the country. We believe now is the time to look at modifying LWCF to allow for purchases of smaller sized tracts that increase access to existing public lands, thus making them available to the public.
Additionally, many feel we should consider allowing LWCF funds to be used to help cover the cost of maintaining new LWCF projects, or having LWCF funds provide payment in-lieu of taxes to local counties whose operating revenues are impacted by LWCF project.
Other important ideas to consider included broadening the funding source for LWCF. Historically the funds to pay for the program have been generated by off-shore oil and gas royalties derived from the sales of these commodities. As Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, points out in his September 29, 2015, Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, “With momentum appearing to build on both sides of the aisle for repealing (oil) export restrictions, Congress should insist that it be coupled with conservation measures to mitigate the impact of expanded oil development on wildlife and natural resources. These measures should include…Permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
And there are many other considerations that the sportsmen conservation community and the larger conservation community would like to discuss. However, for this to happen, we need to let our Tennessee congressional delegation know that the time is now to get serious about LWCF, its future, and its funding.