Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, July 23, 2014
A bipartisan group of lawmakers joined environmentalists today to call on Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, emphasizing its importance to the recreational industry as the fund hits its 50th anniversary.
Speaking to a packed Senate hearing room, four lawmakers -- Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) -- pointed to parks and public lands in their states as proof that LWCF is successful. The fund is the government's main vehicle for acquiring new lands, protecting private lands and funding urban recreation.
"This program really is essential to preserve our national heritage and open space," Collins said, later adding: "In states like Maine, the environment is the economy."
LWCF hasn't been fully funded since Congress enacted it in 1965, despite having a dedicated funding stream from offshore drilling revenues. This year, LWCF received $300 million, far below the $900 million annual authorization. While it is supported by conservationists, sportsmen and Democrats, it faces some resistance from Republicans who think the government should pause land acquisition until agencies like the National Park Service catch up on billions of dollars in maintenance.
LWCF supporters have ramped up their public relations efforts in recent months. Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell traveled the country to raise public awareness of the fund, and today, the LWCF Coalition released a report asking Congress to move the LWCF budget into mandatory funding, ensuring that it would be funded at $900 million every year and would be free from the cuts in the annual discretionary budget.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) also pledged her "full support and cooperation" in fully funding LWCF.
"I hope to be part of establishing, for the first time in the nation's history, a real trust fund for land and water conservation," she said, citing the need for full, consistent funding "so that we can plan and carry out our activities."
The idea has some bipartisan support. But the chances of success this Congress are low, with lawmakers soon heading for August recess and expecting a lame-duck session after the November elections.
At today's press conference -- which featured custom M&M's for the fund's 50th anniversary, along with a cake -- DeFazio admitted as much.
"I think there is a way forward," he said. "It may be a lame-duck miracle, or maybe we'll have to slug it out during the next Congress."
The LWCF Coalition -- which includes landowners, sportsmen, ranchers and conservation groups -- sees the fund's reauthorization as an opportunity. It is set to expire permanently in September 2015 unless Congress reauthorizes it.
"When we reauthorize the program, we must also fix it and fully fund it," Jay Leutze, a trustee for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said today.