If you were told there was a federal program that paid for public parks, forests, playgrounds, swimming pools, and ballfields that didn’t cost you, the household taxpayer, a single dime, would you believe it?
It’s true. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) does just that, but it has a major PR problem, quietly hiding in plain sight and avoiding newsworthy political disputes for most of its 54-year existence. Most Americans might not realize what the fund is or what it’s done for our public lands. That’s a problem because the LWCF is up for renewal this month and unless Congress takes corrective action, the fund could expire. You can’t advocate for things you don’t know about.
Funding the Lands We Love
With the post-WWII boom in outdoor recreation placing a greater demand on limited public land and facilities, Congress recognized that we needed a mechanism to fund the acquisition and improvement of more public land and set up the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1964. The federal government uses the LWCF to buy private land within the authorized boundaries of national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, etc. (these are called inholdings) from willing sellers at fair value. States get grants from the LWCF to dole out to county or city parks or use on state land for recreation, hunting, or fishing projects.
Originally tied to park user fees and motorboat fuel tax, the fledgling LWCF wasn’t generating the kind of revenue that Congress was hoping for. In 1968, the LWCF was amended to tap into government revenue from offshore oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, the LWCF’s authorized share of oil and gas revenue has increased twice and now sits at $900 million. This sounds like a lot of money, but the federal government receives over $6 billion annually from Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases and royalties—the LWCF only accounts for a fraction of that figure. With this funding model, the LWCF has no direct cost to taxpayers.
But there’s a difference between money that is authorized and money that is actually appropriated to the LWCF. Authorizing the fund is like opening an account in a bank and setting a minimum balance. However, it takes a Congressional appropriation to actually make a deposit in that account. The LWCF usually receives only a portion of its annual $900 million authorization—the 2018 appropriation was just $425 million. Since the inception of the LWCF, it has been fully appropriated only twice, and has missed out on $20 billion in potential appropriations. Future LWCF purchases are prioritized based on improvements to habitat protection, recreation, and public access. Each year, federal land management agencies submit a combined, hierarchical project list to Congress. However much of the LWCF is appropriated for the year is equivalent to how far they make it down the list.
In West Virginia, the LWCF has contributed to nearly 500 projects in 54 of our 55 counties at the federal, state, and local levels in the past 54 years. These projects have included 47 city pools, 34 neighborhood playgrounds, five state parks campgrounds (with 237 campsites), seven golf courses, trails, handicapped access, ball fields, public restrooms, and a fish hatchery. The LWCF has supported “wild and wonderful” icons of the state, including Seneca Rocks, the New River Gorge, and Watoga and Blackwater Falls state parks. Every acre (all 16,613 of them) of the Canaan National Wildlife Refuge was purchased with the LWCF.
Some of the more unique LWCF projects in West Virginia include the WVDNR’s French Creek Wildlife Center, the new Tucker Boulder Park, and Oglebay Park’s Good Zoo, which has taken a leading role in eastern hellbender restoration. The LWCF contributed $1.5 million toward the purchase of the Cheat Canyon Wildlife Management Area, improving hunting and fishing access, providing a permanent home for the Allegheny Trail, and protecting habitat for the threatened flat-spired three-toothed snail.
The LWCF has blanketed the Mountain State all the way to the confluence of the Ohio and Big Sandy Rivers. The LWCF also covers West Virginia from top to bottom: both the highest point in the state—Spruce Knob – Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area—and the lowest point in the state—Harpers Ferry National Historical Park—are LWCF beneficiaries.
All told, West Virginia has received nearly $240 million dollars from LWCF, including $2.4 million for hunting, fishing, and wildlife projects; $8 million for WV State Parks and Forests; and over $30 million for city and county parks. The federal dollars have been used to protect mineral rights under the Cranberry Wilderness, preserve Eastern Panhandle Civil War battlefields, provide boater access to the Gauley River National Recreation Area, and secure habitat for the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
The LWCF helps maintain the places and facilities that provide real quality-of-life benefits for our residents and support our tourism economy. The LWCF is the underpinning of our state’s current marketing emphasis that invites visitors to experience the natural beauty of West Virginia. Research shows that every dollar invested in LWCF returns at least four dollars to the economy. According to the National Park Service, the New River Gorge National River contributes $66 million in economic activity to Southern West Virginia each year. The LWCF has invested $43 million in the New River region over 54 years.
The Sun is Setting
The LWCF program authorization will sunset at the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, 2018. Unless Congress acts to reauthorize LWCF before then, the fund will expire and millions of dollars earmarked for conservation and recreation projects across the country will be lost. Land management agencies and local communities will no longer be able to count on the LWCF for financial support. But now is also the best time to try to strengthen the future of the LWCF. The best possible outcome for the LWCF during the current legislative debate would be both permanent authorization—so the program never expires—and a requirement for full, annual appropriation. Only then can our public lands count on reliable LWCF support year after year.
Our public lands are at risk of losing their unsung hero. And future generations of Mountaineers may miss out on the countless benefits that come with improved access and better facilities on public lands and parks. Our most effective course of action is to speak up to our elected leadership and communicate how important the LWCF is for West Virginia. Contact Senator Manchin, Senator Capito, and your Representative and ask them to support permanent reauthorization and full appropriations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund before it’s too late.
Matt Kearns is Public Lands Campaign Coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. When he’s not advocating for West Virginia’s rivers, he’s out paddling them.