By John McFerrin
The negotiations that led to the “transportation bill” that is mentioned in two other stories in this issue (See stories on p. 1 and p. 4 of this issue) resulted in Congress’s recent failure to fund the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a principle source of funding for West Virginia’s parks, forests, and places for people to hunt and fish.
The Senate-passed version of the transportation bill included a provision to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for two years at $700 million a year. In addition, this provision expanded access for hunting, fishing and recreational activities.
During U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives negotiations over the final provisions of a transportation bill agreement, this provision was dropped entirely from the bill at the request of a group led by a vocal minority within the House.
Republicans on the 47-member committee that convened on the transportation bill argued that scarce federal dollars that were being appropriated by the government on transportation should be spent on road and highway construction. Typical of the views of this minority were those expressed by Rep.Rob Bishop (R-Utah) who said that the federal government can’t manage the land it has now and there is no point to giving it the money to buy more land.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created by Congress in 1965. It represented a bipartisan commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. National parks like Rocky Mountain, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails, and ball fields in every one of our 50 states were set aside for Americans to enjoy thanks to federal funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses revenue from one of our natural resources: offshore oil and gas. Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are put into this fund. The money is intended to create and protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects.
While these royalties are available every year to go to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the process is not automatic. Congress still has to appropriate it. That was what was about to happen this year until the last minute compromise diverted it to other uses. As it has done most other years, Congress diverted much of the funding that was available to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The money went to uses other than conserving our most important lands and waters.
As a result, there is a substantial backlog of federal land acquisition needs estimated at more than $30 billion-including places vulnerable to development such as the Florida Everglades, Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, Civil War battlefields in Virginia and other precious places around the country. State governments also report needing $27 billion in LWCF funds for eligible local parks and recreation projects.
Around the country, the LWCF program has permanently protected nearly five million acres of public lands including some of America’s most treasured assets such as Grand Canyon National Park, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the White Mountain National Forest, and Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first federal refuge.
In West Virginia, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has provided funding to help protect West Virginia’s most special places and ensure recreational access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. Public lands such as the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Monongahela National Forest, Chief Logan State Park, and New River Gorge National River have all benefited. Forest Legacy Program grants, funded under LWCF, help protect working forestlands while enhancing wildlife habitat, water quality and recreation at places such as the Potomac River Hills in Morgan County. LWCF state assistance grants have supported hundreds of projects across West Virginia’s state and local parks.
Over the duration of the program, funding for LWCF has varied yearly, falling drastically in the last few years to total less than $100 million in 2007. In 2010, the Department of the Interior collected approximately $5.2 billion from offshore energy production, but only $306 million, or about seven percent of that revenue, went to federal and stateside LWCF.
Today, the four federal land management agencies (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management) estimate the accumulated backlog of deferred federal acquisition needs to be around $30 billion. Opportunities to protect fish and wildlife habitat, provide public access for recreation, preserve our nation’s most notable historic and cultural sites, and protect scenic vistas are being lost every day to development.
The LWCF state assistance program provides matching grants to help states and local communities protect parks and recreation resources. Running the gamut from wilderness to trails and neighborhood playgrounds, LWCF funding has benefited nearly every county in America, supporting over 41,000 projects. This 50:50 matching program is the primary federal investment tool to ensure that families have easy access to parks and open space, hiking and riding trails, and neighborhood recreation facilities.
Over the life of the program, more than $3 billion in LWCF grants to states has leveraged more than $7 billion in nonfederal matching funds. But funding levels have been unpredictable and the average annual appropriation since fiscal year 1987 is a mere $40 million-despite the need for millions more.
Today, the National Park Service reports that the unmet need for outdoor recreation facilities and parkland acquisition at the state level is $27 billion. While the LWCF alone cannot address all state park needs, it is a critical federal partnership with our nation’s state and local parks and communities. There are numerous pending and proposed projects in West Virginia that are in need of continued LWCF funding.
Before the Congressional compromise that resulted in funds available for the Land and Water Conservation Fund being diverted to other uses, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy advocated in support of full fund of the Fund.