LWCF remains political football in spending talks

By Phil Taylor | 12/08/2015 07:05 AM EST

As four Senate Republicans warn that Congress shouldn’t reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the year-end spending package, a key House Democrat is pushing to bundle LWCF and other conservation programs in a bipartisan sportsmen’s package that would offer another vehicle for extending the recently expired fund.

What does that all mean? There’s no clear path for resuscitating the 50-year-old law, which funds the purchase of new federal lands and helps states fund local recreation projects, among other functions.

On Friday, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asking that he reject an extension of LWCF in an omnibus spending measure, arguing that the program has "drifted far from its original intent and is in desperate need of reform."


Like other LWCF critics, they argued that there’s no rush to reauthorize the law, given that it still carries a balance of roughly $20 billion that could be spent if appropriators wish.

They said they welcome a "broader debate" over LWCF’s reauthorization, but with a few key demands.

First, they proposed that LWCF money be made available to maintain existing federal tracts in order to help pay down a deferred backlog of projects approaching $20 billion.

They also proposed that Congress clarify that LWCF money is to be used to purchase "inholdings" — nonfederal lands that are surrounded by federal property — and that purchases should be required to achieve cost savings and a larger percentage of LWCF appropriations should go to states.

Such proposals may struggle in Congress, given that they are opposed by Democrats and many influential conservation and sportsmen’s groups.

Many Republicans have rallied behind a LWCF reform proposal by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that would make more surgical changes to how LWCF money is spent without specifically allowing funds to be used for maintenance.

The fiscal 2016 omnibus — should Republicans, Democrats and the White House cobble together a deal — is viewed as the most promising vehicle to reauthorize LWCF, which lapsed in September. Government funding runs out Friday.

Sportsmen’s vehicle?

Yesterday, House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) expressing disappointment that committee Republicans will not consider allowing LWCF and other conservation programs to be added to H.R. 2406, a bipartisan sportsmen’s package.

Grijalva said inclusion of LWCF as well as reauthorizations for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and Multinational Species Conservation Funds could help attract Democratic votes.

"These programs have broad bipartisan support in Congress and near universal support among sportsmen and conservationists, so I remain puzzled by your unwillingness to work together on a package which the president could eventually sign into law," Grijalva wrote.

The sportsmen’s package by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) passed the committee Oct. 8 on a 21-15 vote (E&ENews PM, Oct. 8). It has four Democratic co-sponsors.

A similar sportsmen’s package authored by Murkowski and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) was amended to include the Murkowski-Cantwell deal permanently reauthorizing LWCF. That package passed ENR on Nov. 19 by voice vote (Greenwire, Nov. 19).