Outdoor Groups Endorse Senate Effort to Restore Allotted $900M to Conservation Fund

A wide range of conservation and outdoor recreation groups are lobbying in support of a Senate bill and resolution that both call for ending the "chronic diversion" of offshore oil and gas revenues from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) into the federal government's general fund.

On Feb. 14, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2013 (S. 338). The bill, which demands "full and dedicated funding" of LWCF, has 30 cosponsors and has been referred to the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

On March 25, the Senate passed a budget resolution for the 2014 fiscal year with a 50-49 vote in support of "full and dedicated funding" of the LWCF—for only the second time in nearly 50 years.

Established in 1965, the LWCF collects about $900 million a year in royalties and fees from companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf. The money is intended to create and protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects.

Yet, almost every year, Congress diverts much of this money into the general fund rather than use it for what it was intended. In recent years, the most the LWCF received was $450 million in 2010 — half its authorized amount. The 2013 budget provided just $51.6 million for federal land acquisition and $28 million for matching stateside grants, compared to $186.7 million for land acquisition and $45 million in matching grants in 2012.

In April, President Barack Obama proposed a 2014 budget that would "allow" the LWCF to keep $600 million of its allotted $900 million in oil and gas revenues. The President also proposed a phased-in approach to achieve the full $900 million in "dedicated" funding for the LWCF starting every year in 2015.

“The President’s proposed budget includes a landmark opportunity to fulfill President Kennedy’s vision for this conservation program,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said. “Mandatory, full funding of the LWCF would provide for certainty and longer-term conservation planning that will, in turn, strengthen our communities and economies."

Obama’s proposed budget includes money for improving segments along the National Trail System, including specific projects along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Vermont; and along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in California, Oregon, and Washington. The budget also includes other projects, like one to preserve duck habitat and keep working lands in provate hands in the Dakota Grasslands, and projects related to hunting and fishing access to public lands, working forests, and Civil War battlefields.

The Senate resolution and Obama's proposed budget are in stark contrast to the tentative 2014 House budget, which dedicates only about $144 million — 16 percent of the LWCF's allotted $900 million — to conservation and land acquisition programs.

The House budget includes $5 billion in cuts "that would have a negative impact on the nation’s parks, wildlife refuges, forests and other public lands and waters," stated Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), in a July 23 press release. “You can’t question the math."

Based in Boulder, Colo., the OIA represents more than 4,000 manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, sales representatives and outdoor recreation retailers.

Of the three budget options — Senate, House, and Obama Administration — conservation groups are lobbying for the Senate proposal, which would make full funding every year the law.

"The Senate’s version makes a fundamental commitment to honor the promise of LWCF and meet the needs of America's families, hunters and anglers," the LWCF Coalition stated in April.

The LWCF is a broad-based coalition of conservation, recreation, environment, business, historic and cultural organizations, "working to secure full and dedicated funding of the LWCF."

“The Senate’s vote reflects growing momentum for restoring honesty to the budget and putting a portion of offshore oil and gas revenues where Americans were promised they would go: into protecting the parks, working lands, and wildlife habitat that fuel America’s $646 billion outdoor recreation economy,” said Will Rogers, President of The Trust for Public Land. “As Congress moves forward with its work, sportsmen, businesses, and local communities will be watching closely to ensure the promise of LWCF is finally fulfilled and the chronic diversion of these funds for unrelated spending is ended.”

“Accessible, close-to-home recreation is essential to the growing $646 billion outdoor industry and vital in getting Americans active and outdoors,” said Kirk Bailey, vice president of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association. “We applaud the President for his vision for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and his understanding of how important outdoor recreation and tourism are to America's prosperity and growth.”

According to the Land and Water Conservation Coalition, the "chronic diversion" of LWCF funds has created a backlog of federal land acquisition needs estimated at more than $30 billion, including places "vulnerable to development" such as the Florida Everglades and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The coalition notes that state governments report a $27 billion shortfall in LWCF funds for conservation projects.

Since it was created in 1965, the LWCF has generated more than $7.2 billion for acquisition and development of outdoor recreation opportunities, financing more than 40,000 projects in every state and territory, helping states and local governments purchase more than 2.6 million acres of public land while permanently protecting nearly 5 million acres of federal lands in places such as the Grand Canyon National Park, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the White Mountain National Forest, and Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.