Summer Forest News 2015: From the Director – Help Save the Land and Water Conservation Fund by Executive Director Mary Topa

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is our nation’s most far-reaching land conservation program and is set to expire on September 30, 2015. The LWCF is a visionary idea that has helped protect more than five million acres of land, including such national treasures as the Grand Canyon National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, as well as favorite neighborhood parks, ball fields, and trails. Created by Congress in 1964, the LWCF was a bipartisan commitment to provide funding that would safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act into law on September 3, 1964.

The vision for the LWCF was simple – a portion of receipts (up to $900 million per year) that energy companies pay the government for offshore oil and gas leases in public waters would be reinvested in the conservation of our public lands and natural resources. Congress designed the LWCF so that there would always be money available, without burdening the American taxpayer. The federal government uses the LWCF to acquire and protect critically important private lands within: our national parks, seashores, forests, grasslands, recreation areas, trails, and wild and scenic river corridors; national historic sites, parks, monuments, military parks and battlefields; national wildlife refuges and other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service areas; and Bureau of Land Management lands. The

LWCF also provides funding to states and territories for species and habitat conservation on non-federal lands (Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund); protecting American battlefields on non-federal lands (American Battlefield Protections Program); providing conservation value to working forests in the face of development pressure (Forest Legacy Program); protecting drinking water supplies in America’s most densely populated corridor ( Highlands Conservation Act); and protecting and supporting the expansion and development of state and local parks (State and Local Assistance Grants).

The LWCF State and Local Assistance program provides matching grants to help states, District of Columbia, and Territories protect local parks and recreation resources. LWCF funding has benefited nearly every county in America, ensuring that families have close-to-home access to public open spaces and has built hiking and biking trails, improved community parks, playgrounds and ball fields, and acquired and preserved historic battlefields.This 50:50 matching program has supported over 41,000 projects; over the past 50 years, $3 billion in LWCF grants to states has been matched by more than $7 billion in nonfederal funds.

The LWCF has helped protect some of Georgia’s most treasured places. Georgia has received approximately $312 million over the past five decades, protecting such places as the Chattooga Wild & Scenic River, Cumberland Island Seashore, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests and more.

Although the LWCF is authorized to receive up to $900 million per year, this level of funding has been met only twice during the program’s 50-year history. Congress nearly always diverts the funds for other uses, leaving some conservation projects without adequate funding. In fiscal year 2013, the Department of the Interior collected more than $9 billion from offshore energy production, yet LWCF received only $306 million in 2014. Despite reduced funding levels, LWCF remains the premier federal program to conserve our nation’s land, water, historic and recreation heritage.

The LCWF should be budgeted at the full, congressionally authorized level of $900 million annually. This funding level was never indexed for inflation and is the minimum necessary to preserve natural areas, historical sites, wildlife habitat, and ensure that all Americans have access to quality outdoor recreation.

As we commemorate LWCF’s half-century track record of success, please reach out to your member of Congress and urge them to speak up for reauthorization of America’s most important conservation and recreation program. Companion legislation, S.338 and H.R.1814, are bipartisan bills that have been introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, to permanently reauthorize the LWCF before it expires in September. Another bill, S.890 was introduced in the Senate and would permanently reauthorize and provide full, dedicated and permanent funding of $900 million annually to the LWCF as authorized by Congress. Please urge Congress to also provide robust funding for LWCF at the full, congressionally authorized level of $900 million when funding levels for FY 2016 are decided this summer. Critical parks, trails, wildlife and recreation projects are counting on this program to continue!

To learn more about the impact of this visionary bill, read the Land and Water Conservation Fund – 50 Years of Conserving America the Beautiful, compiled by the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition in 2013. Much of the information in my article is based on this 50th anniversary report.

“The land and water conservation bill assures our growing population that we will begin, as of this day, to acquire on a pay-as-you-go basis the outdoor recreation lands that tomorrow’s Americans will require.” — President Johnson