The environmental costs of offshore oil and gas extraction can be exorbitant.
For example, in 2010 British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon blowout contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with 205 million gallons of oil. The 87-day spill fouled 1,074 miles of coastline and killed millions of fish, birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, mollusks and crustaceans along with thousands of acres of seagrasses and corals. By 2013 the tourist industry had lost an estimated $22.7 billion. And ongoing damage to recreational and commercial fisheries is projected to reach $8.7 billion by year’s end.
So why not help mitigate such costs by allocating a tiny fraction of federal royalties from oil-gas leases to fund habitat protection, public access, public recreation, and historical preservation?
That thought occurred to President Kennedy in 1962. At his request, Congress hatched the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, signed into law by President Johnson September 3, 1964.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) quickly became America’s main tool for protecting and restoring historic sites, like battlefields, and for providing matching grants to states for urban and suburban recreation facilities, like ballfields.
Most importantly, it became a tool for acquiring wildlife habitat and public access — through purchase and conservation easements — to be managed and improved by states, the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.
“LWCF has been a tool for unlocking large areas,” declares Whit Fosburgh, President of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “One strategic, small acquisition can open up tens of thousands of acres for public recreation.” That recreation includes such activities as hunting, fishing, camping, birding, hiking, swimming, boating, bicycling, horseback riding and nature photography, to mention just a few.
Enhancing LWCF’s popularity was the fact that it imposed no burden on taxpayers.
A History of Conservation Success
The $900 million that’s supposed to go into the Fund annually is not dedicated. That means it can’t be spent unless appropriated each year by Congress for LWCF’s intended purposes. So Congress has traditionally raided the Fund, diverting money to the Treasury for every conceivable unrelated expenditure. Of the $40 billion LWCF has collected since its signing, only $18.4 billion has underwritten LWCF projects.
But that $18.4 billion has done great things.
The Fund has enhanced at least 850 federal management areas, and its matching-grant programs have helped 42,000 state projects protect at least 3 million acres of forests, meadows, river corridors and historical sites.
Among hundreds of examples is the $220 million to restore fish and wildlife habitat in Everglades National Park and the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. And $14 million to protect wilderness in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Just between 2014 and 2017, 293 LWCF projects in 42 states saved 431,000 acres of wildlife habitat.
In Washington State, The Nature Conservancy and the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge used LWCF money to acquire additional refuge land that improves the habitat of oysters, which cleanse the waters of Willapa Bay and support a $30 million oyster industry.
Hawaii’s unique and critically endangered gallinules, coots, stilts and ducks now have a brighter future thanks to the 800 acres LWCF has added to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu.
In Montana, 8,200 wildlife-rich acres checkerboarded throughout the Lewis and Clark National Forest faced fencing and development until LWCF helped the Bair Ranch Foundation and other partners protect it for native ecosystems and public access.
In Colorado, $200 million from LWCF has expanded the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. In Arkansas $150 million has helped protect the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. And in South Dakota $50 million has expanded the Dakota Tallgrass Prairie and Wildlife Management Area.
Typical of the thousands of small state projects that have brightened the lives of urban residents is the Black Oak Savanna minutes from my house in central Massachusetts. LWCF helped the Massachusetts Audubon Society add this 80-acre jewel to its Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester — New England’s second biggest city.
The Savanna, now protected as an island of wildness in a sea of asphalt and cement, filters urban runoff. Largely as a result, the brook — once destined for ecological ruin — sustains a flourishing array of aquatic invertebrates, great blue herons, American bitterns, muskrats, beavers, otters, minks, northern watersnakes, three species of turtles, four species of frogs and at least five species of fish.
The Defunding of LWCF
All these success stories seemed not to matter in February 2018 when the Trump administration appalled the environmental community by essentially defunding LWCF in its proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget.
On June 20th The Nature Conservancy’s CEO, Mark Tercek, wrote an open letter to Interior secretary Zinke: “As I said at the meeting, I was disappointed by your own budget proposal for 2019 which called for hugely cutting funding for LWCF by 95 percent… I am joining eight members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — at an event today to ask the Congress to reauthorize the LWCF before it expires in September. The rationale for a conservationist like me is clear.
Over its lifetime, LWCF has done a lot to make America great. In just your home state of Montana for example, the Fund has delivered $52.7 million to support state parks and outdoor recreation sites. Likewise, millions of LWCF dollars have supported conservation easements on ranchlands throughout Montana and the West, helping sustain rural ways of life. And, of course, since the program’s start, LWCF has enhanced some of Montana’s most iconic national parks and other public lands, providing great outdoor recreation opportunities…. Let’s get back to the original plan for LWCF, and let’s start with full funding.”
The news got even worse on September 30, 2018, when Congress declined to reauthorize LWCF and it expired. A tool that had done everything from protecting habitat for rare and endangered species to creating inner-city playgrounds to providing public access to blocked-off land suddenly vanished. A 54-year conservation legacy was gone.
And A New Hope
But not for long. Even before expiration, there was a hint of good things to come when, as Outside Online reported, “The majority of Congress — including many of Zinke’s fellow Republicans in both chambers — essentially laughed the Trump-Zinke Interior budget out of the room.”
And this from Aaron Weiss, Media Director for the Center for Western Priorities: “After Trump and Zinke had basically zeroed out LWCF in their budget, Zinke continued to claim bizarrely that he was fully supportive and continued to hand out LWCF grants.”
Four years ago when I looked into LWCF for Fly Rod & Reel magazine I encountered vicious opposition. Leading a well-organized charge against LWCF for the property-rights community was House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT).
So where’s the opposition coming from in 2019? When I put the question to Weiss he responded as follows: “There really isn’t any. The problem is Congressional inertia. Even Rob Bishop is now onboard with reauthorization, especially as part of an overall parks funding and maintenance backlog.”
“It’s significant that Chairman Bishop got a bill out of committee under his name for permanent authorization,” remarks Kathy DeCoster, Director of Federal Affairs for the Trust for Public Land. “When that occurred and the Senate did its bill, amendments were offered in both situations to gut LWCF, and they were defeated. Yes, there are still pockets of resistance, mostly from a few western Republicans. But many western Republicans are supportive. The scene is very different now than in 2015. We’ve come a long way. Champions are doing a great job putting an agreement together that both sides are happy with.”
Permanent authorization looked like it was going to happen in the lame-duck session, but the government shutdown nixed that possibility.
Late on New Year’s Eve, the House Democrats released the FY 19 Interior appropriations bill; and, despite the lapse of LWCF’s authorization, its proposed funding level is $425 million. “That’s a far cry from the 95-percent reduction that the administration proposed,” says Tom Cors, who directs government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy.
Virtually everyone I interviewed in the environmental community believes that permanent authorization is going to happen in the near future. “That will be a huge victory,” DeCoster says.
But the main and final victory will be full funding. Never has the need for full funding for LWCF been greater. Every day America loses 6,000 acres of open land to development.
“LWCF was authorized at [and increased to] $900 million in 1978,” says Cors. “In today’s dollars that would be $3.4 billion. America’s conservation and recreation needs have only grown since then. Full funding is the main thing we need. We can work on that once we’ve got the permanent-authorization win under our belt. Getting that authorization is important, but we also care about money going out the door.”
You Can Help
All Americans who value fish, wildlife, recreation and historical treasures need to urge their legislators to move fast on the permanent authorization of LWCF and, especially, to get onboard with making it a dedicated fund so that the tiny fraction of oil-and-gas leasing revenue can be spent as President Kennedy and Congress in 1964 envisioned.
On the LWCF Coalition website there’s a display that ticks off, in real time, money lost to the Fund since its September 30th expiration. Thousands of dollars flash by in seconds. A driver plucked from 1940 and transported to a 2019 gas station to fill up his Packard would be less horrified at the blur of numbers racing across the price screen.
Between 11:00 a.m. on December 29, 2018 when I started writing and 10:50 a.m. on January 5, 2019 when I finished, the display went from $220,680,863 to $237,926,717.