Two members of the Washington’s congressional delegation — Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Dave Reichert, R-Auburn — are expressing confidence that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be reauthorized.
But with so many dollars on the line for conservation purposes, many supporters are growing nervous about when it will happen and what the final bill will look like. After all, what could possibly go wrong in a Congress famous for getting nothing done, with less than 100 days left to go before the law expires?
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a major source of money for recreation and habitat-protection projects across the country, ranging from building local swimming pools to buying land for national parks. Since 1965, more than 41,000 grants have provided a total of about $4 billion, divided among every state and five U.S. territories. For a list of completed projects in Washington state, check out “50 Years of Success” by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.
The current law places $900 million a year into the fund, but in recent years only a fraction of that ever gets appropriated — roughly between one-fourth and one-half. If not appropriated, the money disappears into the general Treasury for other spending.
Revenues put into the fund come from royalties paid by energy companies for drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf, so no tax dollars are involved. As President Obama and others have stated, the program allows money coming from the extraction of natural resources to go into protecting natural resources.
In a conference call yesterday, Kilmer recounted how the fund has helped bring businesses to Washington state, as employers look for places with natural beauty and recreational opportunities. He noted that in his previous life he worked for the Pierce County Economic Development Board helping employers site their businesses.
“Just like in real estate, location matters,” Kilmer said. “Access to natural beauty matters. Something our region has is a natural environment that you won’t find anywhere else, and innovators and employers are attracted to the Pacific Northwest.”
Kilmer said it is “hard to overstate the importance” of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He promised to work hard to have it permanently authorized.
Reichert delivered a similar message, saying he helped gather signatures in support from more than 200 representatives from both parties.
“I want to reassure everyone… we are going to continue to fight this fight back here,” he said. “We think it is absolutely critical to invest in the LWCF … and support public land conservation efforts.”
I did not get a clear picture of how the political battles are shaping up, nor whether reauthorization is likely before the fund expires at the end of September. But we can get some clues from remarks by key leaders in the House and Senate, as well as testimony in public hearings.
At one end of the spectrum, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell has proposed legislation, S. 890, that would not only reauthorize the law but require permanent and dedicated funding at the full amount of authorization. If Congress fails to appropriate the funds, presumably the money would stay in the fund unless redirected to another program.
Separate bills in the Senate and House (S. 338 and H.R. 1814) would not go as far. They would make the fund permanent but would not change the appropriation process. A provision would be added to the law to require that 1.5 percent of the appropriation, up to $10 million, would be set aside for opening up public access to recreation.
In the Senate, an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill, which would do what S. 338 proposes, nearly passed with 59 votes, one vote shy of the required 60 votes to pass in today’s Senate. That is seen as decent support in the Senate, but nobody is predicting what will happen in the House.
Republicans, who are in control of the committees, could shape any bills that they decide to bring to a vote and move to floor.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, chairs the Subcommittee on Federal Lands Oversight of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“This 50-year old act expires in September, offering the 114th Congress an opportunity to thoroughly examine its mission and impacts and to make adjustments accordingly,” McClintock said in a hearing in April on the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
McClintock raised objections about buying more federal land when there is a serious backlog of maintenance projects needed to meet standards for fire prevention, fire suppression, wildlife management and facilities maintenance. Money that goes to states, on the other hand, comes under greater accountability because of the funding match provided at the local level, he said.
The funding is entirely discretionary, he noted, so it is “incumbent upon Congress” to decide whether to support additional funding for the purchase of federal lands.
Similar views were expressed by Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“I fully support reauthorizing this act, this year, in a way that reflects changing needs and evolving viewpoints about conservation in the 21st century,” Murkowski said during a hearing in April.
“As we look to reauthorize LWCF, I believe that it makes sense to shift the federal focus away from land acquisition, particularly in Western states, toward maintaining and enhancing the accessibility and quality of the resources that we have,” she said. “This is the best way to put our nation’s recreation system on the path of long-term viability.”
She stressed her support for state programs and for increasing public access to federal lands.
In that same hearing, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Democrats’ ranking minority member on the committee, said it is not necessary to choose between maintenance and purchase. Maintenance is already authorized, she said, and Congress decides how much to spend on maintenance.
“Nearly half of the National Park Service’s estimated backlog is attributed to needed repairs for roads and highways within the national parks,” she said. “The single biggest improvement we could make in reducing the maintenance backlog would be to increase the funding level in the transportation bill for park roads.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is flexible, she argued. It provides money for states to buy and develop local recreation projects and to protect habitat for endangered species.
The fund also provides money for the Forest Legacy Program to purchase development rights from private timberland owners to keep the property in a forest condition.
On that point, more than 2,100 acres of forestland adjacent to both Green Mountain and Tahuya state forests in Kitsap and Mason counties were protected from development in 2009 with a $3.3 million purchase of development rights from Pope Resources. See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 12, 2009.
In the latest round of funding, an effort is moving forward to protect 20,000 acres of forestland between Shelton and Allyn in Mason County. The plan is to take up to 10 years to buy the development rights from Green Diamond Resource Company, which will continue to manage the land under a federally approved habitat conservation plan.
As for extra money for state projects, Cantwell pointed out that a relatively new program, the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, provides a dedicated source of funding for state grants. Money from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico places up to $125 million a year in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In a column published by the Kitsap Sun, Washington State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Land and Water Conservation Fund is important for protecting public property in every corner of the state, including a land purchase to improve degraded water quality in Lake Quinault near the coast.
Rolfes said she worries that in this “highly charged political climate,” opponents of public lands could block spending from the fund by failing to authorize its renewal.
“If they succeed,” she said, “the loss won’t be abstract — it will be real and immediate.”
The video below, produced by The Nature Conservancy, makes an argument for continuing the purchase and protection of public lands.