Land and Water Conservation Fund Cut: Congress Doesn’t Care About Public Access (Or About Urban Kids)

Andrew McKean Avatar

Lost in the nonsensical noise about funding federal government operations through mid-December this week was the loss of one of the most important, cherished, and impactful programs outdoor recreationists have ever had.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1965, was not reauthorized this week, thanks to a bunch of dogmatic, short-sighted Republicans in both the House and the Senate who apparently either don’t know or don’t care about where we hunt, fish, and walk our dogs.

The LWCF is one of those acronymic programs that are easy to ignore. But let me give you a little perspective of what we have lost. The program is (or rather, was) funded by royalties paid by energy companies who are permitted to drill for gas and oil on the Outer Continental Shelf. The fund was capped at $900 million annually in the heyday of the program. It’s been funded at decreasing levels over the last decade, down to $100 million recently.

But the money – and it’s important to note that no taxpayer monies are used – in the fund is earmarked for land acquisitions (including buyouts of private land inside our national parks) and consolidation of public land in checkerboard land ownership patterns that are common across the West. But much of the fund is distributed to states, who provide matching grants to local communities to build playgrounds, purchase fishing access sites, and promote outdoor access in communities where urban blight and indoor recreation are more common.

Over the lifetime of the program, more than $3 billion in LWCF grants have leveraged more than $7 billion in non-federal matching funds. In other words, this LWCF fund is the seed money that is used to amplify the power of any qualifying project. That’s good government. It’s sound public policy. It should be funded.

In my home state of Montana (the state with the highest per-capita funding of LWCF grants), 70 percent of our state fishing access sites were acquired with these funds. But they’ve also built urban fishing ponds, playground sets, and they’ve been the catalyst for purchasing easements into previously inaccessible public lands.

So why wasn’t the fund reauthorized? I was in a call with Montana’s senior U.S. Senator, Jon Tester, who suggests that the party that controls both the House and the Senate is not interested in the public’s ability to access public land.

“These people want to see LWCF funding dry up, and public lands tied up,” Sen. Tester said. “Through this action (failing to reauthorize the fund), Congress is telling the American public that public access to public land is not important.”

So what can happen now that the fund is unauthorized? It’s not pretty. Tester walked me through the mechanism, which probably requires general (taxpayer) funds to keep the LWCF solvent. Any fund that uses taxpayer money is vulnerable when the next government budget is reconsidered in December. It probably won’t be perpetuated without a whole lot of lobbying.

Tester says he’s ready to hold bills hostage in order to get the Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthorized.

“We’re ready to raise some heck. If that means holding some bills, then that’s what we’ll do. It’s not what we’d like to do. I believe in bi-partisan, responsible government. But we’re looking to attach this to any must-pass bill that we can, whether it’s a highway bill or a government-funding bill. Once a program goes away, it’s very hard to get back.”

So let’s make it easy to get the Land and Water Conservation Fund back. Ask your U.S. Senator or Representative how they voted on this bill, and if they voted against reauthorizing it, then tell them they don’t have your vote or your support.