On July 6, President Obama signed the two-year, $127 billion surface transportation bill. Mostly unreported in the media coverage of the event was the sharp cut in funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that was also part of the legislation. The original Senate bill (S. 1813) had proposed $700 million in funding for the LWCF for each of the two years and perhaps more importantly, that funding would not have been subject to the annual appropriations process. House Republicans balked and the funding was greatly slashed – to $66 million, a 60 percent reduction over FY2012 funding levels.
Most Americans haven’t even heard of the LWCF. But it has been arguably the most important source of funding for parks and recreation in the U.S. for the past 40 years. The 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and subsequent legislation in the 1970s authorized creation of a fund of $900 million annually, financed mostly by oil and gas lease revenues, to be used for federal land acquisition and a state and local grant program. Over 7 million acres of land have been protected with LWCF funding since the program began – from some of the country’s most iconic parks and public lands such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Appalachian Trail, to local parks in nearly every county in the U.S.
Use of the term “fund” is misleading, however, as spending is subject to the annual appropriations process and thus has varied greatly from year to year and never reached the $900 million mark. While funding levels were generous in the 1970s, they were greatly reduced throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, reaching a low of $138 million in 1996 with zero funding for the state-side program. After a brief resurgence in the late 90s and early 2000s, funding declined again between 2001 and 2008. In addition, funds have been diverted to other uses than specified in the Act. While levels have risen somewhat during the Obama Administration, this most recent outcome suggests tough times ahead for the LWCF.
Many observers think we do not need more federal spending on land acquisition given the funding backlogs for operations and maintenance on the lands we already have. And private property rights advocates, particularly in the Western states where federal land holdings are high, lobby strongly not only for no additional public lands but for sale of some of the ones we already own. Public lands and park advocates, on the other hand, long for a true trust fund with guaranteed funding each year. Past efforts on this front have fallen short, however.
The LWCF Act sunsets in September 2015, thus big decisions are on the horizon for the program and for funding for conservation and recreation more generally. The LWCF legacy is well-established but where do we go from here? My own view is that a consistent source of money dedicated to parks and public lands with a fixed share to states is appropriate and needed. But a dialogue should be started about how best to allocate such funds to yield the greatest value. Are large swaths of new public lands in the West a good idea or do we need more recreation lands close to where people live? There is a strong case for the latter, but more research is needed. Moreover, the persistent problems associated with maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls for park operations also need immediate attention.