LWCF bites the dust. Now what?

By Phil Taylor | 10/01/2015 06:53 AM EDT

At midnight last night, the light flickered out on one of the nation’s most popular conservation programs.

But the political battle over the Land and Water Conservation Fund is sure to rage on into the fall, as lawmakers debate how to divvy up the hundreds of millions of dollars it receives each year.

The 50-year-old law, which was authorized at $900 million, pays for federal land acquisitions, private land conservation easements, state recreation projects and endangered species grants.


It’s been funded annually by revenues from offshore oil and gas development, accumulating an unappropriated balance of roughly $20 billion.

Appropriators will still be able to draw from that fund when it comes time to pass another spending bill Dec. 11. But the program’s expiration means oil and gas companies have stopped paying into it.

That has increased the stakes for the program’s backers in Congress.

"We must act quickly today to reauthorize the LWCF so that we don’t lose the important connection between the funding source for this conservation program and the program itself," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was among a handful of Republicans who took to the floor yesterday to urge the program to be extended, if only temporarily.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had planned to ask for unanimous consent to pass a 60-day extension, but there were apparently at least a few objectors.

The next opportunities for reauthorization are as a rider to a long-term surface transportation bill or in an omnibus spending bill in December. There is even talk of including LWCF in a bill to lift the ban on selling crude overseas as a way to pick up support for exports from moderate Democrats.

"I will be pushing to get it included in any legislation that comes before the Senate," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who held a conference call yesterday with sportsmen and an outdoor business leader in his state to discuss the future of LWCF.

But the program’s first expiration since its enactment in 1965 was a major blow to its proponents in Congress and in the conservation and recreation communities.

"Tomorrow morning, when we wake up, the elegant idea first proposed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that’s been authorized twice without major debate … that elegant promise to the American people will be broken," said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for lands at the Wilderness Society.

The Mayors for Parks Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates for LWCF to fund local parks, trails, sports fields and other amenities, condemned Congress’ inaction.

"Mayors across the country are disappointed that the Land and Water Conservation Fund is set to sunset this week," said Fort Worth, Texas, Mayor Betsy Price.

Democrats and their allies pointed the finger at House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) for stalling progress in the lower chamber after a compromise to permanently extend LWCF was reached by bipartisan leaders on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"The folks who drive the natural resource agenda in the House only want to see LWCF die and public lands locked up — they’ve said as much," Tester said. "And it’s a shame that LWCF supporters in their party can’t convince them otherwise."

But Bishop yesterday noted that there is still $20 billion on the LWCF balance sheet, which appropriators can spend as they see fit. At LWCF’s recently appropriated levels of roughly $300 million annually, it would take more than 50 years to blow through the cash.

"Anyone who claims that there’s no money or the money’s going to be cut off, that’s crap," Bishop said.

He said he supports reauthorization — this year — but he wants more LWCF money sent to states and for programs that could grow the fund into the future and support education.

"Think big," he said. "No one’s got a vision of what this fund could be."

There are other reform backers — among them ranchers and the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., a fiscally conservative group that has argued against using LWCF funds to enlarge federal land holdings.

On Tuesday, the conservative Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sent a joint letter to Bishop’s committee opposing land acquisitions and urging that LWCF be reformed before it is extended.

"We do realize that there may be certain times that land acquisition may be necessary," the groups said. "However, we also believe that certain protective measures should be put in place to ensure that the tool is not abused."

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who chairs the panel that appropriates LWCF money to Interior and the Forest Service, said he’s deferring to authorizers — Bishop — on the act’s future. Calvert said states need "more input" and agreed that LWCF needs reform.

But he signaled that appropriators would continue funding LWCF even if it remains expired.

"There’s a lot of things that have lapsed in this place," he said. "The FBI is a nonauthorized program, so we’ve continued to fund that, too."

The best option for pro-LWCF camps is to keep the program on Congress’ agenda.

Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor yesterday was at the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, where, joined by the Civil War Trust, he touted LWCF’s role in preserving 21,000 acres of battlefields and cultural sites.

"We’re not going to let this conversation die," said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who spoke on the floor yesterday next to an enlarged photo his son took of Daines, his wife, Cindy, and his dog, Ruby, in front of an alpine lake where the senator used to hike as a boy.

"We can still do the right thing," he said. "We can still reauthorize this important program."

Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.