WASHINGTON – The 54-year-old federal lands purchase program that’s helped protect Yellowstone National Park, the Appalachian Trail and Central Park in New York City is on the verge of disappearing.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) actually expired in September when Congress failed to reauthorize a program that has steered billions from federal offshore oil and gas leasing revenues to conserve millions of acres in more than 40,000 parks, monuments and historic sites.
An attempt to revive it earlier this month as part of the congressional budget negotiations died despite broad bipartisan support. Now with a government shutdown entering its second week with no compromise in sight, it’s unclear when – or whether – the LWCF will be resurrected.
“Congress’ failure to act on the Land and Water Conservation Fund this year is unacceptable and shows just how broken this place is,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said last week after a public lands package that included permanent reauthorization of LWCF.
The program has become the federal government’s primary piggy bank to buy land and water for conservation and outdoor recreation across the country. Often, the money is used to buy private tracts nestled within the confines of public lands.
Over its five decades, the LWCF has dispensed some $16 billion to states and federal agencies for purchasing millions of acres in national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, historic and scenic trails, wild and scenic river corridors, national battlefields and monuments, and other federal lands. The fund also has been used to buy land as a wildfire buffer between public forests and potentially vulnerable communities.
But critics, led by Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee, say a program created primarily to help states develop recreational planning and facilities has “drifted far from its original intent” and desperately needs reform given the multi-billion-dollar backlog of repairs at the hundreds of national parks.
“The last thing Congress should do is authorize more money for the federal government to acquire more lands that it can’t take care of,” Lee wrote in a recent column. “If we truly want greater access to and preservation of our nation’s beautiful lands and waters, we need to rethink LCWF in the long term.”
Lee wants to block the program from being able to buy more land. Instead, he said, a portion should be required to go towards addressing maintenance backlog projects at national parks.
Despite Lee’s concerns, the program draws a wide swath of support. Environmental activists want wildlife areas expanded; outdoor enthusiasts want larger expanses to hunt, fish and hike; preservation groups want more battlefields saved, and urban planners want to incorporate more green space into their cities.
And there’s an economic benefit, supporters say.
“It’s not just the hunters, the hikers and the anglers who are counting (on) LWCF,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said earlier this year. “It’s the cafe owners, the hotel managers, the fly shop workers, the outfitters and the guides who are demanding a long-term solution.”
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Supporters are seeking permanent authorization as opposed to the temporary extensions Congress has approved over the years.
Not only would a permanent program avoid the prospect of future battles in Congress but it would also make it easier to fund the program at its fully intended level of at least $900 million per year. Lawmakers have appropriated far less than that most years, including several when no funds were allocated.
Advocates are hopeful that will change when Democrats officially take over the House Jan. 3.
“We’re counting on the 116th Congress to stop siding with Trump’s attacks on our public lands and fix this right away,” said Alex Taurel, conservation program director for the League of Conservation Voters.