More than 40 percent of our national parks, from Arizona’s Saguaro to Wyoming’s Grand Teton, contain inholdings. Those privately owned chunks of land complicate management, block public access and present a risk of development—as when a luxury home was built in the middle of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, five years ago.
Now, the main source of funding for buying such inholdings, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is in serious jeopardy: At the end of September, Congress let it expire, failing to reauthorize it despite widespread bipartisan support.
The LWCF does a lot more than buy inholdings, too. Roughly half of it goes to providing conservation easements on private land, conserving privately owned timberlands, developing urban parks and ball fields, and funding endangered species projects on nonfederal lands.
Since its inception in 1964, the LWCF has protected more than 7 million acres. The fund draws no taxpayer dollars; most of it comes from royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.
“There’s poetry in the idea that we can use revenue generated from the depletion of one resource to enhance another,” says John Gale, conservation director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Since 1978, the fund has been authorized to receive up to $900 million annually, though in recent years, Congress has appropriated less than a third of that.
But even as Congress cut LWCF’s funding, members on both sides of the aisle were trying to use it for projects in their own districts. According to a 2014 investigation by Greenwire, 16 Republicans, 48 Democrats and three independents had pushed for land acquisition, conservation easements and grants for local parks and trails over the previous five years.
LWCF’s primary foe is Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who has refused to even allow hearings on the bipartisan reauthorization bill that’s been sitting in his committee since April. He’s vowed to continue blocking LWCF until it’s been reformed, citing his opposition to an increase in federal lands for any reason. (Just more than two years ago, though, Bishop had proposed that Utah counties negotiate to get more congressionally designated wilderness, as a bargaining chip for increased energy development.)
“We are not going to blindly reauthorize a fund with inherent flaws,” says Bishop spokeswoman Julia Slingsby. “This law needs to be updated to reflect the 21st century.”
The fund that Bishop wants to update has provided $48 million to his state for local projects like soccer parks and swimming pools. It’s also paid for more than 7,000 acres of private inholdings within Zion National Park, plus nearly 5,500 acres in Dinosaur National Monument. Bishop’s reforms would put an end to such purchases. He has suggested the program’s money could instead cover shortfalls in PILT, “payments in lieu of taxes,” to counties with large amounts of federal land, or pay for the education of future energy-industry workers. He and other critics also say the fund should be used to cover the $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks.
The LWCF has accumulated a $20 billion IOU thanks to the gap in appropriations, giving Bishop another excuse to stop funding it. But it’s disingenuous to claim this money is available to be spent, says Lynn Scarlett, managing director of public policy for The Nature Conservancy, and deputy Interior secretary under George W. Bush. “There is no magic $20 billion waiting around, or even one dollar,” she says. “It’s a paperwork credit for funds long ago used for other purposes.”
Now that the program has been allowed to sunset, the royalty money meant for it is going to the general treasury. Under the continuing budget resolution that expires Dec. 11, the House and Senate could pass an extension of the LWCF and maintain that funding link. If they don’t, though, re-establishing it will take an act of Congress.
Fund supporters are now scrambling to find a must-pass piece of legislation to which they can attach reauthorization. The most promising is a compromise by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would make the program permanent and balance state and federal spending, giving each 40 percent of the annual appropriation, and allowing the remaining 20 percent to be spent flexibly. It would also create a separate fund to address the national park maintenance backlog. Other Western representatives have sponsored similar legislation, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines, R., and Jon Tester, D, as well as Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Meanwhile, environmental and sportsmen’s groups are lobbying mightily for the fund’s resurrection.
“It’s hard for us to see something like LWCF that has broad support become a political chip,” Gale says. “Congress should be able to function and move things that are good for the American people and absolutely a clear winner.”
This story originally appeared in High County News.