House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) today proposed comprehensive reforms to the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a bill that would send significantly more money to states and greatly curtail the purchase of new federal lands.
Bishop’s draft bill drew a chorus of criticism from conservation and sportsmen’s groups but was praised by one state parks advocate as a starting point for how to better divide up money from the wildly popular fund.
The draft contrasts sharply with the bipartisan LWCF reform package advanced over the summer by the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was roundly endorsed by conservation advocates but drew skepticism from state advocates (Greenwire, July 23).
It suggests that the road to reauthorizing LWCF — which expired Sept. 30 for the first time in its 50-year history — will be steep and fraught with partisan fights.
For decades, the law authorizing LWCF required that no less than 40 percent be used for the purchase of new federal lands. The rest was to be allocated among other programs including state recreation grants, easements on privately owned forests and endangered species grants.
LWCF was authorized at $900 million annually but gave appropriators broad discretion over how much to spend and how to allocate it. Funding in recent years has hovered at around $300 million.
Bishop’s bill would:
- Maintain the $900 million funding ceiling and reauthorize the bill through September 2022.
- Require that no less than 45 percent of LWCF money go to state-side grants, of which 30 percent must go to urban areas.
- Require that at least 20 percent support development of offshore energy. It would establish Outer Continental Shelf Pilot Offices to streamline permitting of offshore energy projects to bolster production royalties that currently make up the bulk of LWCF revenues. It would also establish an Offshore Energy Technology Hub to drive offshore energy innovation and provide higher education grants to prepare the next generation of energy workers.
- Require that at least 15 percent go to payments in lieu of taxes, a program that compensates counties with large tracts of federal lands that do not pay property taxes.
- Allow no more than 3.5 percent to fund deferred maintenance projects at federal lands agencies.
- Allow no more than 3.5 percent to fund federal land acquisition and limit purchases to inholdings. In addition, no more than 15 percent of the acreage purchased could be located in the West, and at least one-third of funding would need to improve access for hunters and anglers.
- Allow no more than 3.5 percent to fund Forest Legacy, a program that purchases conservation easements on private forestlands to keep them free of development.
- Allow no more than 3.5 percent to fund endangered species grants.
The draft bill, which will receive a hearing before Bishop’s committee Nov. 18, would mark the most significant expansion of LWCF’s purposes since it was passed in 1964.
"If we’re going to spend this much money, we can’t think small," Bishop said this morning in a call with reporters. "We have to think of something big that’s going to help people. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be doing it at all."
Bishop said LWCF today has "strayed quite a bit beyond" the original law, which required that 60 percent of the fund be spent on states unless appropriators decided otherwise. He said he supports providing the full $900 million annually, provided that his reforms are enacted.
Doug Eiken, executive director of the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers, whose members oversee the distribution of stateside funds from LWCF and have lobbied for a greater piece of the LWCF pie, praised the bill.
"I think the bill will provide the vehicle to have an open and comprehensive discussion on the purpose, and best use of, the reinvestment of the proceeds from a diminishing natural resource to their best use for the people of this nation through the LWCF," he said. "The state and local governments who have used these matching grants to improve their outdoor recreation areas and facilities welcome this discussion."
But most initial reactions were sour.
Conservation groups, sportsmen and some pro-LWCF Republicans said that by expanding the fund’s uses and restricting federal land purchases, Bishop is diluting the core purpose of LWCF, which is to preserve lands and promote their use and enjoyment.
"Congressman Bishop seeks to replace LWCF with a scheme that completely betrays the program’s land conservation purposes," said David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a Republican environmental group. "His rewrite represents a radical departure from the fundamental values and stewardship ethic on which LWCF is based, and his attempt to pawn this off as some sort of revision must be rejected."
Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, a national organization that advocates for urban parks and benefits from state-side grants, likewise accused Bishop of undermining the 50-year-old law.
"While we were pleased to see Congressman Bishop’s attention to urban communities, we cannot support this legislation because of his effort to include provisions unrelated to the overarching mission of LWCF," she said.
The draft bill’s restrictions on land acquisition will be a key sticking point for many conservation groups. In its history, 62 percent of LWCF money has been used on federal land acquisition, with $184 million on average going to acquisitions over the past five years. Even if LWCF were fully funded, Bishop’s bill would provide less than $32 million for acquisitions, while restricting the vast majority to Eastern states that have fewer blocks of federal lands.
The Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation group, calculated that 93 percent of National Park Service acres eligible for protection using LWCF funds is west of the 100th meridian, which is the dividing line in Bishop’s bill.
"That includes thousands of acres in Rob Bishop’s own backyard — private land inside Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks — in addition to lands within some of America’s most iconic parks like Grand Teton and Yosemite," said Greg Zimmerman, CWP’s policy director. "This bill would ensure the Park Service never has enough money to protect those lands for future generations."
Groups including the LWCF Coalition, which consists of hundreds of conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, are backing a clean reauthorization of LWCF. Earlier this year, 59 senators voted for such a proposal, signaling broad bipartisan support for the status quo.
"Rep. Bishop’s bill is a deliberate effort by anti-conservation extremists to dismantle a successful and popular bipartisan program and distract Congress from the urgent need to fully fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund in its current form," said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for the Wilderness Society, who also is co-chairman of the coalition.
Bishop defended the need for changes.
He noted that offshore energy workers are getting older and that there are too few Americans who have the skills to replace them.
"These jobs are going increasingly to foreigners," Bishop said, emphasizing the importance of sustaining offshore royalties that support the fund. "This is not magic money that just appears overnight."
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell sent a letter to Bishop today arguing that land acquisition helps "right-size the federal estate, consolidate checkerboard ownership, and conserve areas rich in ecological diversity." She noted that nearly all money spent on acquisitions is for inholdings within federal areas, many of which make federal land management more efficient.
Bishop’s draft contrasts significantly from the package approved over the summer by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
That bill would amend LWCF to ensure that at least 40 percent of the fund is allocated to nonfederal programs including state-side grants, conservation easements and endangered species grants, putting those programs on par with federal land acquisition.