Cades Cove at dawn by Susan Hay.

Cades Cove at dawn by Susan Hay.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund:
Is this the end?

(Note: The Land and Water Conservation Fund was reauthorized in an April 20 vote.)

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.

Get the picture?

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.

For more resources on LWCF, including a video of a statement by Sen. Lamar Alexander on the floor of Congress, visit our LWCF page here.

14 replies
  1. Mac says:

    I’m glad to hear the Act has been renewed finally. However, I note that funds are used to increase access to some of the land that is involved. That means disturbance, disruption and, sometimes, downright destruction of land by Tennessee trash and the equally obnoxious ORVs. I hope a lot of the funding will go to enforcement of tough usage laws.

  2. Ray says:

    Voter education and ramifications of the voting outcomes can be a rude awakening. Until a new federal election cycle little can or will be changed? I will attempt to impress upon my long term congressman and two senators the importance of this fund. Federal office term limits is a must.

  3. Robert says:

    You can for get about any action to establish a fund to benefit the environment that has a direct benefit to anyone that buy a hunting or fishing license when it is excepted that hunters and fishermen should pay for their rights. Most states use this reason to increase fees or close areas they can not man or can use as a need to increase state funding to maintain areas. Just a few years ago many camping and state parks, and with numerous federal wildlife refuges camping, fishing and hunting were closed due to budget cuts with no reduction in full time personnel only part time help was affected. Then local governments began to take over control of these areas to open them once again without additional fees or need to be funded. With a budget deficit growing as every second passing a special fund for wildlife to be set aside from a steady revenue stream coming into the general fund that can be used for all purposes that benefits everyone, will be impossible for a group so opposed to each other to ever reach agreement on.

  4. BI'll Freeman says:

    Any funding for conservation of our resources is better than none at all, so I do not mean to say that this source of funding is not gratefully appreciated, but it makes me a bit nauseous to realize that despite the fact that “Big Oil” continues to reap absurdly immense, record-breaking profit margins every year, the amount of money paid back to the American people for royalties for exploiting their land, both on-shore and off-shore is ridiculously small. For instance as of 2013:
    “The current royalty rate for onshore oil and gas produced on federally owned land is 12.5 percent. Despite increasing need for federal and state revenue, this rate has not changed since 1920 (the royalty rate for oil and gas produced on federally-owned offshore land was increased in 2007 from 12.5 percent to 16.67 percent and then again in 2008 from 16.67 percent to 18.75 percent).” (Source:
    According to the above LWCF article, The ENTIRE amount of funds contributed by these royalties to the State of Tennessee for conserving its precious natural resources since LWCF’s INCEPTION in 1964 is 189 million dollars. Compare that to Exxon’s profits from only ONE YEAR (2013) : 32.6 billion dollars. (Only ONE oil company and they had a 27 percent DROP in profits in 2013…) To put that in petspective, 189 million/32.6 billion X 100 = 0.58 percent!!! In other words, the amount of money these royalties generated to conserve Tennessee’s incredible resources over a period of 50 years was less than one-half of one percent of the money ONE oil company made IN PROFITS from the oil extracted from the land (and off-shore areas) of the American people’s public land in ONE YEAR! And now Congress thinks the poor, poor oil companies are paying too much in leasing fees and royalties to the American citizens to continue to fund the LWCF! Who do these “representatives” really represent? I think that is obvious, don’t you?

    • BI'll Freeman says:

      Oops, corrections: 1)Bill, not BI’LL 2) 0.58 is just OVER one-half of one percent, not just LESS than… and 3) peRspective, not peTspective…

      • BI'll Freeman says:

        Oops. I am trying to keep this as accurate as possible, so… l did some more research and discovered that only about 25 percent of Exxon/Mobile’s Oil production is Domestic, so my figure of 0.58 percent should have been 0.58 X 4 = about 2.32 percent is the revised figure. (50 years of LWCF funding for Tennessee’s natural resource conservation is about 2.3 percent of Exxon’s one-year profit in 2013.)

  5. John says:

    I be leave the state should find a way to fund it,and stay away from federal government politics, ( They don’t know how to balance a checkbook)We should of known ,that they would not have a enough sense ,to figure a bill into budget, to full fill there obligation ,of taking care of our national parks.

  6. Matthew says:

    This is a great opportunity for the state of Tennessee to take control of these sites and fund them ourselves. Where do you think the money actual comes from? The DC politicians don’t have it they take it from us then spend it in a way the helps them politically, and along the way have run the country trillions of dollars in debt!
    I say our state representatives and governor should stand up for TN. I hate this fear mongering that if we don’t beg the federal government for funding then the world is going to end. We should solve this problem ourselves and encourage other states to do the same.

    • Mark says:

      Matthew, the funding for the LWCF is generated exclusively from off-shore oil and gas royalties, not from taxation. That’s why it’s so important to get it reauthorized.

  7. Forrest Butler says:

    I would agree. It is critical that we lean on the Congress until they fund the LWCF program, by whatever means. They will respond if the pressure is ratcheted up. For every person that loves the out-of-doors, be they consumptive user or otherwise, it is our responsibility to pressure the Congress to act now.


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