It’s been two months since Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), the powerful chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, let the Land and Water Conservation Fund expire, ending a fifty-year program that successfully protected and built America’s local, state, and national parks.
Despite huge bipartisan support for its permanent reauthorization, LWCF expired because Rep. Bishop has refused to have real discussions about any bill to renew the popular program, or present a legitimate alternative vision.
Instead, Rep. Bishop has spent the last two months spreading misinformation about LWCF in an attempt to make the program unpopular in Congress and with the American public.
Here are Rep. Bishop’s go-to myths, and why they don’t hold water:
#1: It’s not a blank check if you’re writing the checks
Rep. Bishop frequently claims that LWCF is a “slush fund” for the Obama administration’s pet projects, even trying to start a social media meme with it:
—@NatResources, October 29, 2015
The definition of a “slush fund” is “an unregulated fund often used for illicit purposes.”
But LWCF is a program authorized and run through Congress, and Congressional appropriators—the elected leaders who decide where and how money is spent—determine which specific projects will get funded. The agencies in charge of managing our national parks and forests provide suggestions on where they believe the money should go, but have little authority over where LWCF funds are ultimately directed. And when it comes to local projects, states have complete authority to decide which projects to fund.
So, unlike a “slush fund,” LWCF is highly regulated and is used for the transparent (not illicit) purposes of building baseball diamonds, urban parks, trail access, and other projects that benefit communities.
Here are more details about how LWCF priority projects are identified:
- Each year Congress passes a budget, and inside that budget are clear directions on how to spend LWCF funds.
- Current law allows Congress to send up to 60 percent of LWCF funds to local and state governments—called the “Stateside Program”—that want to use LWCF money to improve their parks, paths, and stadiums.
- Not less than 40 percent of the funds are made available for the National Park Service, Forest Service, and other land managers to protect outdoor spaces, enhance recreational access, and improve land management efficiency. Congress has also directed LWCF funds for private forestry, endangered species protection, historic preservation, and other programs.
Each year land managers at the Interior Department and Forest Service lay out the projects they believe deserve LWCF funds. The Department of the Interior, for example, each year publishes what’s referred to as a “Greenbook” which includes a detailed list of budget requests and priorities. Proposed LWCF acquisitions are spelled out in detail, and in priority order, with exact costs.
Then Congressional appropriators take that list and decide which projects will get funded and the agencies are charged with carrying out those projects.
#2: LWCF increases recreational access, it doesn’t limit it
Another talking point Rep. Bishop is fond of is that LWCF cuts off access for outdoor enthusiasts, like in this Facebook post:
—Facebook, October 29, 2015
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the #1 success of LWCF has been increasing access for the public onto our public lands.
As one leading advocate for sportsmen put it:
The Land & Water Conservation Fund is part of America’s hunting and angling legacy. Access matters, and LWCF is a vital part of the tool kit we use to secure access to public lands and improve our ability to manage wildlife for everyone.
Executive Director, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
An analysis by independent researchers found that between 2011 and 2014, LWCF funds had opened access for hunters, anglers, and other recreators onto 322,000 acres of public lands. The same study found that LWCF funds had created over 365,000 acres of new recreation opportunities for cities, towns, and rural areas across the country.
And, it’s critical to note that for projects in our national parks, LWCF is the only way to acquire “inholdings”—private land that’s inside park boundaries but inaccessible to the public. When a willing seller wants to protect that land for future generations, LWCF makes it possible to provide recreational access where there was none before.
For state and local projects, LWCF has invested in urban parks, playgrounds, fishing ponds, sports complexes.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that LWCF is responsible for creating thousands of places for our children to play where none existed before, while opening up fishing holes, hunting grounds, and hiking trails for all Americans to enjoy.
#3: It can’t be a land grab if you’re a willing seller
Rep. Bishop and other politicians often call LWCF a “land grab:”
—Press release, October 7, 2015
While it is true that LWCF is used to acquire additional tracts of lands, such as parcels inside of national parks, the fact of the matter is that federal agencies only acquire land from willing sellers. Put simply, the government can’t force a sale using LWCF. And LWCF money is used to purchase those inholdings at market rates, so those willing sellers are compensated fairly.
In other words, there’s no justification for calling LWCF a “land grab.”
One example of this sort of willing seller project was recently highlighted in a Wall Street Journal story. A landowner in Rep. Bishop’s district is interested in selling a parcel of land to the U.S. government to ensure hiking access is preserved into the future. But without LWCF funds available, the project may never happen.
It’s also worth noting that federal land holdings are shrinking. According to the most recent data from the Congressional Research Service, federal acreage shrunk by 18 million acres between 1990 and 2010. This happens through targeted transfers and conveyances of land to state and local governments along with private landowners.
#4: Managing national public lands is one thing the U.S. government does well—despite Congressional neglect
Rep. Bishop often claims that land management agencies are incapable of managing our American lands. For example, in a push poll on his committee’s website, he wrote:
—House Natural Resources Committee website, October 2015
Americans just don’t buy this allegation, and indeed, believe that management of our public lands is one thing that the American public thinks that the federal government does well.
Gallup recently polled Americans on 19 major areas the federal government handles, including homeland security, healthcare, and foreign affairs. The poll determined that 68 percent of Americans are satisfied with the work that the federal government is doing on “national parks and open space,” making it the second-highest ranked category, behind only natural disaster response.
It is true that the job of land management agencies is getting harder, but this is because Congress has severely cut the amount of money that is spent on our public lands, leading to billions of dollars in deferred maintenance. According to one estimate, “the percentage of the federal budget spent on conservation has been cut in half, from 2.2 percent to 1.1 percent.”
So, in a reality where there is less funding to spend on our lands, LWCF is a critical tool to help the agencies do the job that they are tasked to do.
But he gets one thing right
—Rob Bishop, October 8, 2013
During the 2013 government shutdown, when Utah’s recreation economy took a huge hit due to the closure of national parks, Rep. Bishop took to the House floor to note that public lands are critical to nearby businesses and communities.
He’s completely right: without the outdoor recreation that the people of Utah depend on, they’d have to do without 122,000 jobs, $12 billion in consumer spending, and $3.6 billion in wages and salaries. Utah is home to five spectacular national parks, plus 17 national monuments and landmarks.
Rob Bishop knows that Utah’s economy would be worse off without these national treasures and he readily admits it when faced with the reality of life without them. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a critical tool to ensure these lands remain intact and accessible to the American people long into the future.
Photo: Rob Bishop by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0