Debunking Four Bogus Claims About the Expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Oct 2, 2015

By Center for Western Priorities

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an important conservation program that uses a small amount of revenue from offshore oil drilling to protect national parks, public lands, and local parks. It’s widely popular with the public, has jaw-dropping bipartisan support, and has garnered endorsements from sportsmen and outdoor industry leaders.

On September 30, Congress let the fund’s revenue stream expire after 50 years of success.

This is in large part thanks to one member of Congress, Representative Rob Bishop from Utah, the powerful chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Bishop and those ideologically aligned with him have been making a number of erroneous claims about LWCF and its future to justify letting this critical program wither on the vine.

Here’s what they are getting wrong:

CLAIM: There’s still plenty of money left in the account

“[The fund] currently has an unappropriated balance of $20 billion in taxpayer dollars.”

Utah Representative Rob Bishop

REALITY: Congress is allowed to send up to $900 million every year to LWCF, although in practice it almost always sends less (between $255 and $460 million over the last decade).

Rep. Ra√∫l Grijalva, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, points out that the excess $20 billion only exists in theory. “As an accounting matter, everything that’s authorized for LWCF but not spent on the program each year becomes an IOU that sits in the Fund,” Grijalva said.

In reality, there’s no money. Every penny of that remaining money has been hijacked for other government spending. As Lynn Scarlett, the former Chief Budget Officer of the Interior Department told reporters this week, “there is no magic $20 billion, or even $1, waiting around for Congress to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund and its purposes.”

Or, as Ken Calvert (R-CA), the chairman of the relevant appropriations subcommittee put it: “It’s as real as the money in the Social Security trust fund…There’s been money paid into that account, on paper. But that money’s been spent.”

In other words, that money does not exist, so it is a red herring to suggest that it can be spent.

CLAIM: Nothing has changed and LWCF is still intact

“When we wake up tomorrow after allowing LWCF to expire, nothing will have substantively changed.”

—Utah Senator Mike Lee

REALITY: When the Land and Water Conservation Fund expired, the fund’s primary source of income (a small portion of royalties from oil and gas companies that drill offshore) stopped flowing to conservation.

Of course, Congress makes laws and decides how to spend taxpayer money, so it could choose to keep sending money to LWCF projects. But Congress and the budget are increasingly dysfunctional, and lawmakers will no longer be able to look to these non-taxpayer revenues specifically earmarked to go towards land and water. Considering that this Congress has trouble finding the money just to keep the government open, projects that would have been funded by LWCF are now plunged into uncertainty. LWCF has been so successful over the last 50 years precisely because it could tap a dedicated, predictable source of funding. Taking away that dedicated money could delay or cancel some future conservation projects.

CLAIM: LWCF is about expanding the federal estate

“…LWCF is a land acquisition program…”

—Utah Senator Mike Lee

REALITY: LWCF is about so much more than federal land acquisition. One of its key purposes of the fund is to give states and local communities the tools to achieve conservation goals in the ways that work best for them. As a result, it has built state parks, urban parks, wildlife areas, neighborhood baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and hunting and fishing access points.

LWCF is also used in a targeted way to acquire limited private lands to help make our national parks and public lands whole, but anyone arguing that the program expands the federal estate doesn’t understand the way LWCF works.

The federal government primarily uses LWCF to purchase “inholdings”—private lands within park boundaries whose existence can make it harder to maintain and administer the parks. Indeed, over the last five years, 99.25% of the lands acquired by the Department of the Interior were inholdings in already-protected areas like national parks.

Currently there are 1.6 million acres of private lands inside the borders of our national parks, and LWCF is the only federal program that can be used to acquire these areas to protect them from private development.

It’s also important to note that using LWCF, the federal government can only buy lands from willing sellers. So, it’s wrong to characterize these acquisitions as a “private land grab,” as some politicians have been doing.

And, by the way, the size of the federal estate has shrunk by 18 million acres since 1990.

CLAIM: LWCF needs reform so states can get more money

“Under the original LWCF authorization in 1965, 60 percent of the funds in the program were specifically set aside for the Stateside Program. Last year, Stateside received just 16 percent of LWCF funds.”

—Utah Representative Rob Bishop

REALITY: The spending that goes to federal and state and local programs is actually divided pretty equally. Independent economists at Headwaters Economics analyzed the LWCF money that was actually spent on the ground and the number of acres protected, and determined that “a large majority of projects—by funding and by acres—went to non-federal programs.” The exact breakdown can be seen in the table below:

Land and Water Conservation Fund Project Distributions, 2011-2014

Non-federal projects58%71%
Federal projects42%29%
“Non-federal projects” = Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, Forest Legacy Program, State and Local Assistance (“stateside” program), federal land easements.

“Federal projects” = Fee title federal land acquisitions

Source: Headwaters Economics

And even if the spending was perceived to be uneven, this is due to the decisions of Congress, not the LWCF program itself. The law governing LWCF states that “not less than 40 percent” of appropriations from the fund will go to the federal account, meaning that Congress can, if it wants to, allocate more money to programs that assist states and local communities.

Thus, “reforming” LWCF to send more money to states is a solution in search of a problem. On top of that, this change would also tie the hands of Congressional appropriators who need to have the discretion to send funding to the areas of greatest need.

It’s obvious none of these excuses are a legitimate reason to hold one of America’s greatest conservation success stories hostage.

Photo: Gettysburg National Military Park, Monument to 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, by Rob Weir, CC BY-NC 2.0