The Land and Water Conservation Fund died quietly on Sunday night amid a news cycle dominated by the FBI’s inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the staggering death toll from an earthquake in Indonesia. Created in the 1960s to direct revenues from offshore oil and gas development into a fund that would improve recreational opportunities for Americans, the LWCF is widely held up as the country’s single greatest tool for funding conservation. Throughout its lifetime, the LWCF has funded everything from playgrounds to battlefield monument preservation, fishing access sites, and easements across private land to provide access to public land. It had been in a febrile state since 2015, when House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, allowed it to sunset at the end of its 50-year authorization. Congress eventually reached a deal for a three year temporary authorization, but the extension ended September 30.
LWCF expired despite the recent passage of a compromise bill in Bishop’s committee that would have permanently reauthorized the program, co-authored by ranking minority member, Democrat Raul Grijalva of Arizona. The Bishop-Grijalva compromise was hailed as a landmark moment in the evolution of Bishop’s stance on the LWCF. Bishop has been considered by many in the conservation world to be the LWCF’s biggest adversary. But one of his Natural Resources Committee aides told me that characterization is unfair. “Chairman Bishop has been painted as someone who’s opposed to the LWCF,” the aide said, “and I think this [bill] shows that’s not that case.”
Unfortunately, the House LWCF bill is still in limbo, and now the LWCF is moribund again. As of this week, reauthorization bills had passed out of committee in both chambers of Congress, and pro-LWCF politicians and conservation organizations are confident that the program will be resurrected. But when, and in what shape?
If the bill that passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday remains intact after floor debates and negotiations with the House, the LWCF could come out stronger than ever. Senator Maria Cantwell—a Democrat from Washington and the ranking minority member on the committee—won critical Republican support for the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act, including enthusiastic yes votes from conservative senators Richard Burr of North Carolina, Steve Daines of Montana, and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Cantwell’s bill would permanently reauthorize the LWCF and fully fund the program to the $900 million annual cap set in 1978—about $3.6 billion in today’s dollars. That cap has only rarely been reached, and current funding levels are about half of that amount.
As the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Christy Plumer explains, the LWCF is a “paper trust fund.” Despite its $900 million ceiling, there has never been a binding requirement in any LWCF legislation that revenues generated for the LWCF must actually go to the LWCF. “There’s no real trust fund for the LWCF in the treasury, they just move money around,” Plumer says. “It’s a promise that was never officially put into law... and we need to make new laws to make it a real trust fund.”
If the bill that passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday remains intact after floor debates and negotiations with the House, the LWCF could come out stronger than ever.
The dedicated funding component of the Cantwell bill would establish a real LWCF trust fund, liberating the program from the appropriations process that has hemorrhaged LWCF funds throughout most of its existence. “It’s a waste of time. Every year we are fighting for appropriations for LWCF, and every year we have no idea what’s going to happen,” says Tom Cors of the Nature Conservancy. “The original purpose is not being honored, and it’s dishonest budgeting to not use the money for its intended purposes.”
“Congress shouldn’t have to worry about this because we have offshore oil and gas revenues from $3 billion to $17 billion per year, and yet we in the conservation community are fighting tooth and nail to get half of what was authorized in 1978,” Cors says. “I’d love to be in a place where we’re fighting to get between $3.1 and $3.6 billion.”
Cors says there’s demand in the conservation community for all $900 million and beyond, and that the inconsistent funding levels generate anxiety and doubt among landowners, conservation organizations, and federal agencies, which combine to prevent conservation projects from coming to fruition.
“Imagine a multiple-thousands-acre land deal with a landowner, with multiple funding streams coming together. Often conservation organizations put together those finances, bringing together federal dollars, private dollars, and state and local dollars. If two of the legs of that stool are steady and one gets wobbly, you can see how capital for a project will quickly disappear, and you end up not conserving a particularly attractive tract of land,” Cors explains.
According to Cors and other conservation advocates I spoke to, the dedicated funding component of the Cantwell bill is invaluable. “Reauthorization without funding doesn’t get us anywhere,” Cors says. “As we’ve seen with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, this is something everyone wants in their community. They want recreational opportunities and they want to preserve America’s cultural heritage, and without funding that’s not possible.”
Senate Republicans who supported Cantwell’s bill seem to agree about the importance of dedicated funding. A spokeswoman for Senator Daines says he will “continue to fight to get permanent reauthorization and full funding of LWCF across the finish line.” A staffer for Senator Burr says his “number one focus is that permanent reauthorization with full funding makes it to the Senate floor.”
The problem is that Congressman Bishop does not share his senate colleagues’ convictions about the importance of dedicated funding. After all the hype about the Bishop-Grijalva compromise—which does not mandate dedicated funding—Bishop told reporters last week that the dedicated funding component of the Senate bill “would probably blow it up in the House.” A Bishop aide I spoke to on Wednesday walked back his boss’s comments. “It’s still obviously an open negotiation,” the aide said. “The LWCF conversation in general is still very much an open negotiation.”
“Congress shouldn’t have to worry about this because we have offshore oil and gas revenues from $3 billion to $17 billion per year, and yet we in the conservation community are fighting tooth and nail to get half of what was authorized in 1978,” Cors says.
Bishop has already won at least one important concession in the House compromise bill: LWCF funds would be allocated according to a 40-40-20 split, with 40 percent going to state projects, 40 percent going to federal projects, and 20 percent directed at the president’s discretion. Previously, the breakdown of how LWCF funds were split between states and federal agencies was entirely at the president’s discretion. The new split addresses Bishop’s concerns about limiting new federal land acquisitions and a current priority among Republicans about increased state influence over public land management.
The House bill also includes a provision that would devote $20 million or 3 percent per year of annual LWCF funds—whichever is greater—toward improving access to public lands and waters. The Senate bill stipulates a minimum of 1.5 percent for improving access. Both bills’ access provisions are popular with conservation groups.
On the senate side, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski has also expressed reservations about dedicated funding, but Cors says her willingness to allow the Cantwell bill to come to a vote this week—she voted no, but must have known it would pass anyway—shows that she is probably supportive of some kind of LWCF resurrection. “Our goal now will be to work with the House Natural Resources Committee to put together a consensus package encompassing a wide array of legislation we have reported and send it to the president’s desk by the end of the year,” Murkowski said.
With the House in recess and Congress entering a lame duck session, it seems unlikely that either of the LWCF bills will see action before the midterm elections. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Land Tawney expects LWCF legislation to move forward as part of a bigger legislative funding package before the end of the year, and he has been encouraged by the recent movement in both chambers of Congress.
“This has been a national priority, and it shows that people’s voices work,” says Tawney, who highlighted the broad bipartisan support for LWCF reauthorization in both chambers of Congress. The House bill has 240 co-sponsors, including 46 Republicans; the Senate bill has 46 co-sponsors, including 6 Republicans. “Bishop has been a stick in the mud,” Tawney says, but “he’s heard enough from his colleagues to make it happen.”
“The coalition that supports full funding is large and has support in both chambers. It’s really just Bishop’s and Murkowski’s personal preferences at this point that are holding LWCF up,” says Adam Sarvana, a House Natural Resources Committee staffer who works for Grijalva. “I think Bishop’s plan is to use that as a bargaining chip. Hypothetically, ‘I’ll give you some partial funding guarantee and in exchange, I want X, Y, and Z.’ The contours of what that negotiation might look like are a mystery to us. It’s a black box—Bishop is the only one with the answers, and he’s not talking.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Tom Cors. We regret the error