Land and Water Conservation Fund

August 24, 2018

Our nation boasts an abundance of beautiful topography. Sweeping plains, rolling hills and valleys, rugged deserts, glassy lakes, and cascading waterfalls are all found across our various states. And Americans should indeed enjoy the benefits of these natural features.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Act of 1965 was enacted to further this goal: to strengthen the “health and vitality” of our citizens by helping preserve, develop, and ensure access to outdoor recreation resources. While this is certainly a laudable goal, the fund has unfortunately drifted far from its original intent and is in desperate need of reform.

The fund was set up to be the principal source of money for federal land acquisition, and to assists states in developing recreational planning and facilities. Originally, the LWCF directed 60% of its funds to be appropriated for state purposes and 40% for federal purposes. However, in 1976 the law was amended to remove the 60% state provision, stating that “not less than 40%” must be used for federal purposes.

The result? About 61% of this money has historically been spent on federal land acquisition, while only 25% has been allocated to state grants. The LWCF has thus added an additional 5 million acres of land to the federal government’s vast estate.

Unfortunately, the federal government has proven to be a poor steward of the land that it has purchased. According to a 2017 CRS report, the maintenance backlog on federal land is estimated to be $18.62 billion. Wildfires have run rampant in the West and the government has failed abysmally in preventing them. Ill-kept roads and trails mean that citizens sometimes don’t have access to our nation’s greatest parks.

The LWCF’s ability to accrue additional revenues to the fund is set to expire on September 30th. Supporters argue that the program cannot function without reauthorization, and just this week there was already a proposal in Congress to permanently reauthorize it – without any major reforms.

But the fund currently has a balance of $21.6 billion that can continue to be appropriated for LWCF projects going forward. Under the FY2018 appropriation level, it would take around 50 years to exhaust the fund.

Congress has reauthorized the program, without reform, for years. And permanently reauthorizing the program would be even worse, because it would deny us of any leverage to enact changes to it in the future.

I believe that there are several key reforms that we can and should make before reauthorizing it.

First, we should restore the original balance of funds so that the majority of them go to the states, as the law originally intended. We ought to empower the states and local stakeholders – who are best equipped to manage LWCF funds and care for the lands in their jurisdiction.

Second, we should mandate that the funds cannot be used for further land acquisition by the federal government. Instead, a portion should be required to go towards National Park Service maintenance backlog projects.

The last thing Congress should do is authorize more money for the federal government to acquire more lands that it can’t take care of. If we truly want greater access to and preservation of our nation’s beautiful lands and waters, we need to rethink LCWF in the long term.