The conservation law that everyone loves could soon be gone

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a political unicorn.

At a time when the environment ranks as the most polarizing issue in Washington, LWCF (a mouthful of an acronym for the Fund) is overflowing with bipartisan support. A bill introduced last year in the House to reauthorize the program has attracted 219 cosponsors—enough to pass it through the chamber even with no other votes. That sort of political consensus in 2018 sounds more like a fairytale than a news clipping from the U.S. Capitol.

Congress originally enacted LWCF in 1964 for a 50-year term (with a 92-1 vote in the Senate). Its goal was to preserve undeveloped land for outdoor recreation at a time when much of rural America was becoming suburban. Democratic Rep. Wayne Aspinall, who chaired the House Interior and Insular Affairs committee at the time, declared that LWCF “is of greater significance to the whole of the American public of today and of tomorrow than any of the measures which our committee is likely to report to the House for a long time to come.”

A look around our state of North Carolina is enough to see that LWCF has lived up to Aspinall’s words. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the crown jewel of the Southern Appalachians, is protected through LWCF. So are Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores. Do you like to camp in Pisgah National Forest? That’s an LWCF site. Prefer to drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway for some spectacular fall foliage? Chances are you’re motoring through LWCF land. Or maybe you’re just taking a study break for a quick jaunt along the Eno River in Durham—well, there’s six LWCF-funded conservation projects there (The Wilderness Society has a great interactive map of LWCF sites across the country).

My girlfriend and I camped in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, a trip made possible by LWCF funding for Pisgah National Forest.

With so many of America’s favorite places protected by LWCF, it’s no wonder that 85% of voters support reauthorizing the program. Even Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior who earned a score of 4% from the League of Conservation Voters when he was in Congress, claims to support LWCF.

But there’s a hitch. LWCF needs funding in order to work, and the Trump Administration’s 2019 budget proposal just slashed its budget for land acquisition by 95%.

Zinke’s defense of the budget cut sounds reasonable enough: this Administration wants to prioritize maintaining the public lands we already have, rather than buying up more land that the government won’t be able to afford to maintain. It’s true that the National Park Service already has a maintenance backlog of $11.6 billion—more than four times the agency’s entire annual budget. And that doesn’t even count funding shortfalls for maintenance on Forest Service properties and other public lands.

On closer inspection, however, Zinke’s argument doesn’t hold water. Public lands often resemble a checkerboard across the landscape, interspersed with state and private properties. By acquiring the private and state-owned “red squares” on the checkerboard, federal agencies can actually simplify their management activities, saving money and improving maintenance in the process.

Wild horses graze at sunrise on Shackleford Banks, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore, which was established through LWCF.

In North Carolina, LWCF’s investment of $246 million over five decades supports a $28 billion outdoor recreation industry in the state, generating 260,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue. Recognizing that LWCF is good economic policy, both Republican senators from North Carolina have voted to protect LWCF funding in the past, and Sen. Richard Burr even sponsored a bill last year to permanently reauthorize LWCF.

But Burr’s bill, along with all other LWCF legislation in both houses of Congress, has stalled in committee. If Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) refuse to bring up these bills for a vote, LWCF could expire in September of this year regardless of how many other legislators line up in support.

Whether Congress extends LWCF but goes along with Trump’s near-zero budget proposal, or fails to reauthorize LWCF at all, the result will be the same for America’s wild places: fewer protections, less opportunities for outdoor recreation and more taxpayer money spent on maintaining the existing checkerboard of public lands. That’s why an impressive number of conservation and recreation organizations have banded together to form the LWCF Coalition, advocating on behalf of the 144 million Americans who participate in outdoor recreation each year(My friend Sarah wrote an excellent blog for the Coalition here.)

The bottom line is this: LWCF works for America. It has for over 50 years.

Let’s make sure Congress keeps it working.

Forest land surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina’s most popular national park site, is protected by LWCF.

This is part 1 of my blog series on land conservation policy in America. Stay tuned for future installments in the coming weeks.

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