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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

A handful of our representatives in Congress are quietly preparing a multibillion-dollar rip-off of American families.

Count yourself among the cheated if you value kids’ sports, good health and the Great Outdoors. If Congress does nothing—and Congress is very good at doing nothing—it will quietly smother the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The conservation fund has been one of the most successful programs for decades; it has preserved beloved landscapes and made lives healthier and happier across America. It has worked wonders for 50 years without costing taxpayers a cent.

Who would want to kill it? His name is Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, and he is the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. His committee has jurisdiction over the fund, since it involves taking royalties from offshore oil drilling and distributing them toward outdoor access, wildlife habitat and urban parks and recreation projects.

If you are 50 years old or younger, you grew up in a country with city parks, zoos, tennis courts and basketball courts funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If you camp, boat, hunt and fish, you probably use boat ramps and wildlife habitat secured with its money. The fund’s money has supported projects in 99 percent of the counties in the United States.

Today, as it has for the last 50 years, the fund enjoys broad bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. I remember my Republican senator, the late (and staunchly conservative) Conrad Burns of Montana, telling me that he liked the fund “because it solves problems.”

Since the 1960s, the fund has authorized up to $900 million a year from offshore oil royalties to go toward conservation. But Congress loves to raid that piggy bank, so the fund has kept all of the money to which it was entitled just a few times. Now there’s an even more serious problem: The fund is set to expire on Sept. 30. It nearly did expire in 2015, but Congress pulled it back from the brink and extended it for three years. Today, however, the clock is ticking.

Killing the conservation fund does not save taxpayers’ money, because the money comes from royalties. The fund has never been a “burden” on energy companies, which must pay royalties no matter who gets the money

What, then, is the hang-up? The answer is mostly petty politics and ideology. Some conservation-fund money goes to the national forest and national park systems for land conservation, and Bishop frequently has heartburn over how those federal lands are managed. Given his powerful committee chairmanship, Bishop has a virtual stranglehold on the conservation fund.

Another obstacle is that other anti-government members of Congress seem to hate any successful federal program: They want to kill the conservation fund out of spite.

The genius of the fund is that it recognizes that offshore oil is a public resource that belongs to all Americans. It invests some of the money from our resources into long-term benefits for both urban and rural communities, spread around the country.

Some Republicans say they oppose the conservation fund because they want to hold it hostage to the current maintenance backlog in national parks. Underfunded for decades, our national parks are in poor shape, with roads and outhouses that are far below standard. That’s why, some argue, we should raid the conservation fund piggy bank to pay for those repairs.

That argument is disingenuous on several levels. First, the arch-conservatives who starved the National Park Service for decades are now using this self-created crisis for their own ends. If Congress wants to tap oil royalties to pay for park maintenance, it can do so. Lawmakers need not smash the conservation fund piggy bank to assist the Park Service. Furthermore, using it this way misses the entire point behind the conservation fund, which is about making long-term investments with one-time dollars. Maintenance costs never end. It’s like putting fuel and oil into your car; it’s part of the deal that comes with ownership.

American needs the Land and Water Conservation Fund more than ever. Sadly, a disproportionate number of American kids are obese. All kids need a place to play and exercise. Just as sad, American children are increasingly disconnected from nature. More and more people have fewer and fewer places to go to get outside and away from their electronic devices.

There are three bills in Congress today—all with broad bipartisan support—that would permanently reauthorize and even fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s time to take this political football out of the hands of ideologically overcharged politicians. Time is running out. Again, a bill needs to pass by Sept. 30.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Kalispell, Mont., where he is senior program director for Resource Media.

Published in Community Voices

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.

Published in Environment