The Wilderness Society is warning that the “single most important program” for enabling access to public lands in the U.S. is set to expire September 30.
For 54 years, the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has supported the expansion and improvement of parks and recreation infrastructure in all 50 states. It has funded more than 41,000 local projects that include land acquisition, road repair, trail building, and upgrades to park facilities.
“All federal spending on environmental, conservation, and renewable energy programs amounts to barely one percent of the federal budget,” said the Society’s government relations associate, Cameron Witten. “Yet these vital programs reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, protect the water that our national forests provide to one in six Americans, and preserve and maintain access to our public lands, which contribute significantly to the nation’s US$646-billion outdoor recreation economy.”
Advocates fear current and future park programs will suffer if the LWCF is not renewed or made permanent. There is also a risk that the $21.6 billion in receipts not yet allocated from the fund could be diverted for purposes other than public lands. Of the $40 billion received since 1964, only $18.4 billion has been distributed by Congress, reports the Congressional Research Service.
The Society has launched an interactive online map to show Americans the variety of projects supported by the LWCF. It’s calling on voters to turn up the heat on their elected representatives to speak for full, permanent program funding before it expires this month.
Ninety-five percent of the fund—$900 million per year—is drawn from royalties paid by fossil companies for the right to drill for oil and gas along the Outer Continental Shelf.
The LWCF has enjoyed bipartisan support throughout its history. Sen. Richard Burr (R, ND) called the fund “a rare example of an effective government program that costs taxpayers nothing and benefits them entirely. The LWCF is far and away our nation’s most successful and important conservation program.”
In a joint statement, Colorado senators Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) called LWCF “a critical tool for fulfilling our basic responsibility to give the next generation the same opportunities our parents and grandparents gave to us.”
Yet the LWCF faces difficulties, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s support for the program seems to be waning. While a Senate bill that would have reduced the fund was defeated in late June, advocates are concerned the Trump administration appears more willing than ever to abandon parks and open more of America’s public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Ears National Monument, to mining and fossil fuel development.