If you’ve ever visited the site of the Battle of New Orleans, cast your fishing line in the Pearl River, strolled under an oak tree at Audubon Park, or hit a tennis ball at City Park, you’ve benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (“LWCF”).
The LWCF is a federal fund that has supported public spaces and recreation areas in Louisiana – and all around the U.S. – for more than 50 years. Both political parties support it, as do hunters, anglers and environmentalists.
But Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the new Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has called the LCWF “so dumb,” and vowed to kill the fund as it exists.
This fall, he nearly succeeded – and in doing so, he antagonized so many people that he created a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation among political leaders across the country.
What does the LWCF do?
Congress created the LWCF in 1964 to serve a number of purposes, including:
- buying land for public use (including national parks),
- supporting state and local governments in the creation of parks and recreation areas,
- preserving battlefields and historic areas,
- rewarding private landowners who set aside land for conservation or preservation of endangered species habitat.
The program has helped create parks in all 50 states. It helped establish Rocky Mountain National Park and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It has preserved historic sites like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Underground Railroad. It has set aside areas for hunting and fishing as well as fields for sports like baseball and tennis.
And it’s done all this without using taxpayer money.
The LWCF is funded by the fees paid by oil and gas companies for mineral development on the Outer Continental Shelf, which is government-owned. Every day, the fund generates about $2.5 million from offshore leases.
What does the LWCF mean for Louisiana?
Louisiana has received approximately $215 million in LWCF funding over the past five decades. Every parish in the state has received LWCF money – including $6.6 million for Orleans Parish, $7.5 million for Jefferson Parish, and $3.7 million for East Baton Rouge Parish.
In 2015, Louisiana received $688,000 from the fund.
According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the LWCF also generates money for states beyond the direct funds it provides them. In 2010, TPL analyzed the return on investment from LWCF dollars for federal land acquisition and found that every dollar invested by the LWCF returns four dollars in economic value.
In its study, the TPL looked at 16 federal sites that were supported by LWCF money. It found that, between 1998 and 2009, those sites were visited by 11 million tourists annually. It also found that those tourists spent an annual average of $511 million in the LWCF sites.
Why is Rep. Bishop trying to kill the LWCF?
Congressman Bishop has never been shy about expressing his opposition to federal ownership of land, which he sometimes describes as a battle between “East” and “West.”
“Most judges and eastern states don’t care about being fair to the West,” he told a newspaper in his home state of Utah last April, when asked about the LWCF. In a November press call, he again explained his opposition to the LWCF in the same terms, saying “those of us in the West clearly understand what it’s like to have an absentee landlord. I don’t want to exacerbate that.”
According to Rep. Bishop’s logic, the LWCF has become a federal “slush fund” to help it take over land, especially western land. “That’s what I’m fighting against,” he said. “There’s no way in hell I am going to allow you just to spend that…to expand the footprint of the federal government.”
In September, when the LWCF came up for reauthorization for the first time in 25 years, Rep. Bishop blocked it in his committee, and Congress let it lapse.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle dissented. Sportsmen’s groups and environmental groups raised a clamor. A New York Times op-ed called Rep. Bishop a “villain…a grim-faced idealogue who clearly doesn’t like public land or parks.”
In November, Rep. Bishop released a draft bill that proposed a radical overhaul of the LWCF.
“If we’re going to spend this much money,” he said, “we can’t think small. We have to think of something big that’s gonna help people.”
What caught many people’s attention in Rep. Bishop’s draft bill, however, was not how it would help people, but how it would help the oil and gas industry.
“Of the overall amount appropriated from the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” his draft bill states, “not less than 20 percent shall be available for promoting offshore energy exploration, innovation, and education.”
LWCF is saved…for now
But Rep. Bishop’s LWCF bill never got past the draft stage. Just before Christmas, Congress reversed course again, and reauthorized the LWCF as part of the omnibus spending package it approved. The package also allocated $450 million for the fund through 2018.
Members of Congress congratulated themselves on their bipartisan effort to save the fund. Local newspapers from Missoula to Durango to Milwaukee praised the move, and published articles about how the fight to save the fund had created strange political bedfellows. Environmental groups breathed a sigh of relief.
The LWCF has been renewed for only three years, however, virtually ensuring that it will be back on the chopping block again soon.
“It’s hard to be too excited about putting LWCF on life support,” said John Gale, conservation director for the group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, in an interview. “It’s indicative of kick-the-can-down-the-road form of governing.”
Author: Lindsay E. Reeves