CONSERVATION

Utah's Bishop says LWCF must be 'bigger' than land acquisition

The Land and Water Conservation Fund should be revamped to help pay for "bigger needs," including local recreation, infrastructure and education, according to Rep. Rob Bishop.

For example, Congress should explore using LWCF dollars for payments in lieu of taxes (PILT), an expired program that pays rural counties for the federal lands they are unable to tax, the Utah Republican said.

LWCF money could also support the education of future energy workers whose production of domestic oil and gas could help raise more conservation dollars, Bishop said. Or it could better aid state and local governments in promoting recreation, he said.

Bishop, the chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation and a vocal critic of LWCF, yesterday offered a critique of the nearly 50-year-old program as it nears its expiration in 2015.

"There are state and local recreation, infrastructure and education needs that could be solved if we had a comprehensive plan to use this fund to help local governments," Bishop wrote in an op-ed. "The workforce producing these funds is aging and these high-paying jobs are being filled by foreign workers, not our kids. A portion of these funds should be re-invested in the education of future American energy industry workers."

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Those are just a few ways Bishop feels money from LWCF could be utilized beyond land acquisition, said spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin.

Bishop's short op-ed "lays out the basic foundation upon which he plans to build a bigger policy initiative that will include several areas where LWCF ought to be used," she said.

Bishop will be articulating some of those proposals when he meets with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday, she said.

Bishop called the Obama administration's vision for LWCF "just too small" and said there is more that could be done with the fund's $900 million in authorized funding.

The fund, which began in 1965, is used to acquire new federal lands, conserve private lands, bolster urban parks and trails and aid in species recovery. While it is authorized at $900 million -- paid for by revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling -- it is currently funded at just over $300 million, a point that frustrates backers including the administration, Democrats, conservationists and sportsmen.

Jewell this month has called for full funding and reauthorization of LWCF during trips to Birmingham, Ala., and Richmond, Va., and has begun making visits on Capitol Hill with similar intent.

Bishop said the administration "must remove the blinders and grow the fund; not just spend it faster." He said he wants states to have more control over the use of LWCF dollars.

The lawmaker said he has discussed his ideas for LWCF's future with House leadership, appropriators and some members of the Natural Resources Committee.

Some Republican lawmakers, including Bishop, oppose the acquisition of new federal lands until the federal land management agencies -- specifically the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service -- find ways to rein in growing maintenance backlogs for roads, trails and facilities. Members on both sides of the aisle have contemplated using some LWCF funds for that purpose.

But authorizing new uses of LWCF money is likely to run into criticism from some conservationists who feel land and wildlife protection should remain its sole focus.

LWCF supporters have ramped up their public relations efforts in recent months. In a packed Senate hearing room this week, four lawmakers -- Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) -- pointed to parks and public lands in their states as proof that LWCF is successful.

The LWCF Coalition this week also released a report asking Congress to move the LWCF budget into mandatory funding, ensuring that it would be funded at $900 million every year and would be free from the cuts in the annual discretionary budget.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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