A Bipartisan Deal Could Save a Key Conservation Program About to Expire

The Land and Water Conservation Fund protects habitat critical for birds and beloved by birders. Just days before it expires, lawmakers are working together to extend it permanently.

Update: Congress failed to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund by its September 30th expiration date. A bill (S. 569) put forth by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that would permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF, however, has now passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A separate bill (H.R. 502) from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) has passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee.

For years public-land advocates have heard the clock ticking. With op-eds, outreach emails, and an actual clock, they’ve warned that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), one of the country’s most important habitat-protection programs, is set to expire on September 30. Now, with the deadline drawing near, a House panel led by one of the program’s leading critics has approved a rare bipartisan deal that could authorize the LWCF permanently.  

Since 1964, through the LWCF a portion of royalties paid by offshore oil and gas extractors has gone to protect natural areas and develop outdoor recreation opportunities. The program is supposed to receive $900 million a year, but Congress has regularly raided the account for general spending because the original legislation didn’t guarantee that all of the funds go to conservation. Over the past decade lawmakers have siphoned off most of the cash for other programs, allocating only about $354 million a year on average for the LWCF; this year’s total was $425 million. 

The agreement that Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, and ranking member Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) announced last Thursday would permanently authorize the LWCF. The committee also approved a bill that would use additional oil and gas revenue to address an estimated $11.6 billion national park-maintenance backlog. The committee’s approval and the surprising support from Bishop, who has been sharply critical of the LWCF and other public land policies, may ease the way for Congress to renew the fund before it expires—something that looked far from certain just last week.

The bill will now require a floor vote in the House, and it must be considered by the Senate—where it will also likely find supporters across the aisle. “There is strong, bipartisan support in both chambers for permanently reauthorizing LWCF,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who supports mandating full and permanent funding, said in a statement to Audubon, adding that he will push for a vote before the program expires at the end of the month.

The House bill doesn’t call for fully funding the LWCF—something Audubon and other groups have long advocated. Still, “it’s a huge breakthrough,” says Justin Stokes, Audubon’s senior director of government affairs. “I think it’s a good win.”

Even partially funded, the LWCF has made a significant impact. Over the past half-century, roughly $18.4 billion has preserved Civil War battlefields and other historic sites, protected iconic places from Grand Canyon National Park to the Appalachian Trail, and built local parks nationwide. The program’s state grant component alone has supported 42,000 projects, at least one in every U.S. county, according to the Interior Department. Advocates say those investments pay off, with a four-buck return for each LWCF dollar spent to acquire federal land, a 2010 study found.

Bishop and other critics have long argued that too much of the funding—about 61 percent of total spending to date—has been used for federal land acquisition, rather than local recreation opportunities. (That was the reason he gave for using his chairmanship to block a vote in 2015, when the LWCF was last up for reauthorization; it expired, though an eventual compromise renewed the fund until this month’s deadline.)

The bill advanced last week requires that 40 percent of LWCF funds be spent on state programs, which have received much less than that in recent years. “This bill, along with additional action we took today, ensures that Congress adequately funds the lands it already owns,” Bishop said in a statement, “and realigns the Fund back to its original goal of ensuring that hunters, fishermen, and families have access to recreational activities.”

Permanently authorizing the LWCF will also benefit birders, as it continues to help safeguard birds and the habits they depend on numerous ways:

Protecting Public Lands

We may imagine national parks, national monuments, and other federal lands as unbroken tracts of protected wild, but that’s not always the case—many of them contain private parcels known as inholdings. These tracts might comprise a tiny fraction of a park’s acreage, but inholdings can drive up management costs and diminish recreational and ecological value by spoiling the scenery with development and fragmenting habitat for vulnerable species like Greater Sage-Grouse.

The LWCF allows federal land managers to purchase or negotiate conservation easements on inholdings from willing sellers, knitting together natural landscapes for people and wildlife. “You can oftentimes draw a direct line between a bird that uses that habitat and LWCF funding that’s been used to protect it,” Stokes says. With LWCF dollars, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has protected 1.6 million acres in the National Wildlife Refuge system through purchases and easements; the U.S. Forest Service has protected more than 3.1 million acres; and the National Park Service has protected at least 2.2 million acres. That latter includes not only famous national parks, but also lesser-known units like the Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, a biodiversity hotspot with 10 distinct ecosystems and nearly 300 bird species.

Related: By protecting habitat in national parks, the LWCF supports birds as they adapt to climate change. Find out how bird populations are projected to change in a national park near you.

Saving Endangered Species

The LWCF, created “to strengthen the health and vitality of the citizens of the United States” through outdoor recreation, also supports the health and vitality of vulnerable wildlife populations. The LWCF has provided $394 million to the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, which provides grants to states for protecting federally threatened and endangered species on non-federal lands. 

The grants awarded in 2016 alone include funding to permanently protect 1,415 acres of old-growth forest habitat for Marbled Murrelet and Northern Spotted Owl in Washington State; more than 1,200 acres of chaparral for the Coastal California Gnatcatcher; and nearly 3,000 acres of North Carolina and Texas pine forest for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Promoting Stewardship on Working Lands

Along with consolidating national parks and other tourist destinations, the LWCF supports conservation on working lands like ranches and managed forests. Through the LWCF-funded Forest Legacy Program, for instance, the U.S. Forest Service has purchased or negotiated easements on 2.7 million acres at risk of development. Forestry practices in those woods often benefit a wide range of bird species. One 2006 project in Hawaii protected more than 3,000 acres of habitat for several endangered birds, including the ʻAlalā, or Hawaiian Crow.

FWS also taps the program for easements on working lands. Through the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area, for example, the agency and partners aim to use LWCF and other funding to protect 240,000 wetland acres and 1.7 million acres of grasslands in the Prairie Pothole region—sometimes called “America’s duck factory” for its vital waterfowl habitat—through easements that prohibit converting the land for crops or development, though ranchers are allowed to continue grazing. The agency is involved in similar efforts to conserve the headwaters of the Everglades and tallgrass prairie habitat in the Flint Hills region of Kansas.

Creating Birding Opportunities

Ask a birder where she wants to go on her next adventure, and she’ll likely rattle off a far-flung avian smorgasbord like Everglades National Park or Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (both LWCF beneficiaries). But when you’ve got an extra hour after work and want to look for migrating warblers—or when travel isn’t in your budget—what you need is a neighborhood park or nearby trail. The LWCF can help with that.

“It supports the access and trails that help get people outside in an era when too few get into nature,” says Emily Jo Williams, vice president of migratory birds and habitats at the American Bird Conservancy. “Experiencing the wonder of birds first-hand is job one when it comes to inspiring folks to support conservation.”

Last November, when visiting Chicago, Audubon’s Stokes tagged along on an “owl prowl” with chapter members from around the Great Lakes. The trail they used—part of a Lake County Forest Preserve along the Des Plaines River north of Chicago—has received more than $140,000 from the LWCF. There’s a good chance the LWCF has paid for trails or other improvements at one of your local birding spots, too—find out here.