Stop Cheating Our Wildlife

It’s time for Congress to fully fund and permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Editor's Note, 10/2: Congress allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire at midnight on October 1, 2015. They can still act to re-authorize and fully fund the program​—contact your legislator about this issue here

For half a century America has been reversing an ancient process by turning fossil fuels back into plants and animals. Since 1964 a portion of royalties paid by offshore oil and gas extractors—notorious degraders of public assets—has gone back to the public for restoring and protecting a wide array of habitat, including parks, refuges, sanctuaries, beaches, trails, and battlefields. The program, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), is supposed to receive $900 million a year.

But nowhere near that amount goes where it should, because the original enabling legislation didn’t mandate that all the cash would go to conservation. So every year, Congress raids the LWCF to help fill the black hole of general spending. To date, of the total $37.5 billion the LWCF should have received, Congress has absconded with $20.5 billion, leaving just $17 billion for conservation (before 1978 the annual allocation was capped at $300 million). Meanwhile, we lose about 6,000 acres of open space each day.

The LWCF will expire on September 30, 2015, unless Congress votes to renew it. Important as the vote is, renewal alone wouldn’t stop the raids. But now there’s an opportunity to end the pilfering. A bill, S. 890, introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and cosponsored by 19 other senators, would mandate full funding—forever.

Even with the perennial bleeding, the LWCF has accomplished great things. Audubon’s legislative director, Brian Moore, has received as many as 80 requests a year from chapters seeking help with using the LWCF to protect such habitat as Important Bird Areas. The fund’s grants have helped 42,000 state projects protect 3 million acres and have enhanced at least 850 federal management areas.

The LWCF helped the Bair Ranch Foundation and other partners protect 8,200 acres in Montana that was checkerboarded throughout the Lewis and Clark National Forest, wildlife-rich land that would otherwise have been fenced and developed. In Colorado $200 million has expanded Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and other wildlife habitat; $150 million has protected such Arkansas habitat as the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge; and $50 million has enhanced the Dakota Tallgrass Prairie and Wildlife Management Area in South Dakota. The LWCF has even given a fighting chance to Hawaii’s unique and critically endangered coots, ducks, stilts, and gallinules by helping add 800 acres to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu.

Urban areas benefit, too. I live 10 minutes from Mass Audubon’s Broad Meadow Brook Sanctuary, a 430-acre island of wildness in the sea of asphalt and cement that is Worcester, Massachusetts—New England’s second-largest city. The LWCF helped Mass Audubon acquire 80 acres we call the Black Oak Savanna. Thanks in part to that acquisition, the sanctuary supports deer, fishers, gray and red foxes, 170 bird species, and 80 butterfly species. The savanna’s wetland filters urban runoff, cleansing the brook, now home to frogs, turtles, muskrats, mink, otters, beavers, and five fish species.

LWCF projects are frequently defined as “land grabs” by haters of things federal. In fact, easements are sold far more often than land itself, so most owners keep their property. And, increasingly, LWCF money goes to state projects directly or, on the federal side, via efforts such as the Forest Legacy Program that protect woodlands. Finally, projects result only from willing sellers—there is no “seizure” via eminent domain or any other mechanism. “The rhetoric doesn’t match the reality,” says Audubon’s Moore, pointing out that at the Senate hearing on the LWCF in April there was much conservative support for reauthorization.

Of course, some of that support is driven by the desire to siphon off LWCF dollars for constituent-friendly projects like road building and other infrastructure maintenance. As Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) puts it, we should “shift the federal focus away from land acquisition” toward “resources that we have.” But even the entire LWCF would do little to ease, say, the National Park Service’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog. Furthermore, most federal LWCF grants reduce maintenance needs on their own by consolidating checkerboard ownerships, which are management nightmares.

Besides, says Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, “there are appropriation line items for maintenance. If you want to fund maintenance, fund maintenance.”

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a cosponsor of S. 890, says that Congress created the backlog, so it should be Congress that addresses the shortcomings through the appropriations process. “We only get to sell oil and gas once,” he says. “LWCF was set up to make permanent investments in conservation and recreation, not just pay for regular operations.”

The vast majority of Americans want what S. 890 offers. Bipartisan polling by two research firms found that at least 85 percent of likely voters support permanent full funding for the LWCF. So if enough of them bend the ears of their legislators, the bill’s provisions will, at long last, become law.

What You Can Do:

Contact your legislators and make sure they know that you and most voters favor the original intent of the LWCF: full funding indefinitely.