Four Billion Dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a Good Start, but the National Park Service Needs More

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing prints money. The National Park Service needs more of it from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Photo by
wadester16 via Wikipedia.

September 3, 1964, was truly a red letter day. It was then that President Johnson signed into law two of the more influential pieces of recreation- and environment-related legislation produced on Capitol Hill. One was the Wilderness Act, the passage of which signaled the onset of the modern environmental movement. The other was the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, a monumental step forward in the funding of municipal, state, and federal recreational lands (including national parks). Both of these legislative actions were spurred by the recommendations of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC), which deserves a great deal more recognition than it has ever received.

I’m going to confine my remarks here to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. You’ll find a discussion of the Wilderness Act of 1964 elsewhere in Traveler today.

The final report that the ORRRC rendered to President Kennedy (and indirectly to Congress) in 1962 recommended some actions that had profound implications for the way that the federal, state, and local governments would manage America’s outdoor recreation resources and facilities in the decades to come. In general, the ORRRC urged the federal government to play a strong role in outdoor recreation planning and management.

Not all of the commission’s specific recommendations were implemented, but nearly all of the most important ones were, and very quickly, too. The ORRRC recommendations heavily influenced – one might say “led to the passage of” -- important conservation-related legislation that included the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Trails Systems Act of 1968, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. It also led directly to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 (so designated because of its effective date of January 1, 1965).

This latter piece of legislation was specifically designed to help the federal, state, and local governments acquire land, water, and wetlands (and related easements) to be used for public recreation. In addition to creating or facilitating access to recreation opportunities (as by constructing parks), the projects funded with the help of LWCF monies would also protect natural resources such as forests and wildlife habitat areas. In other words, this LWCF program was not just about providing recreation; it was also about conserving natural resources. And that is, after all, basically what the National Park System is supposed to do.

The Park Service includes land acquisition requests in its annual budget proposal, but on a year in and year out basis the LWCF is the principal source of funds that the agency uses to acquire land and easements. My personal acquaintanceship with this fact, and with the intricacies of the LWCF federal side funding process, dates to the 1970s when more than $30 million was needed to acquire the privately owned land from which Congaree National Park (then Congaree Swamp National Monument) was created. The funds came through (though not all at once), the land was acquired over a period of years, and I became a big fan of the LWCF.

The LWCF, which has been reauthorized through 2015, receives income from several sources. The primary income source is the fees that energy companies pay the federal government to lease outer continental shelf (OCS) drilling rights for oil and gas.

There are additional minor sources. One is the sale of surplus federal real estate, such as unneeded military bases. Another is the taxes paid on motorboat fuel. (These taxes are not collected for purposes of highway construction and repairs, but it’s logical to use them to build facilities like boat launching ramps.)

The LWCF is now authorized at a budget cap of $900 million a year, but this is a very misleading figure. The full $900 million fund level has been reached or exceeded only twice during the program's more than four decades of existence. The fund spiked to $969 million in FY 1998, and in FY 2001 it hit an all-time high of $1.0 billion. In most years, however, there is far, far less. LWCF appropriations in FY 2006, for example, totaled only $347 million.

The LWCF program is divided into two separate funding pools, one for state grants (the “state-side”) and the other for federal acquisition (the “federal side”). As a federal land management agency, the National Park Service is eligible to request funds from the federal side (which has accounted for 62% of all LWCF distributions through the years).

“Request” is the operant term here. Most applications for LWCF funds are denied or substantially reduced because there isn’t enough money available. It’s no small matter that the Park Service has to compete with three other major federal land management agencies -- the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management – to get LWCF funding for land acquisitions.

This is the way it works. Each year, the Executive Office considers the numerous LWCF project requests made by communities, states, and the federal land management agencies. The president then makes recommendations to Congress regarding funding for specific LWCF projects on the state side and the federal side. These project recommendations are then subjected to Appropriations Committee review.

To have any chance at all of getting money from the LWCF’s federal acquisition pool, a project generally has to be located within or adjacent to an established or proposed federal unit and be considered a priority by the administering agency. It helps greatly if the project develops recreation resources that are within day-tripping distance of a major urban center, too.

The whole process is harshly competitive, and because projects are approved only after being vetted with scrupulous attention to political implications (meaning: “will this allocation of funds help me get reelected?”), only the projects that nearly everybody likes have a realistic chance of getting funded. And you may rest assured that there is never enough money to fund all of the worthy, universally liked projects.

By 2006, a total of $14.3 billion in LWCF funds had been distributed, and the Park Service had received a $4 billion share. That seems like a lot, and indeed it is, but it is far, far less than what was needed. Thanks to this chronically inadequate funding for land acquisitions, the Park Service’s acquisition backlog has been getting bigger and bigger with each passing year and now stands at a towering $1.9 billion -- the estimated cost of buying 1.8 million “priority” acres in and adjacent to 154 park units. (This is not to mention the Park System’s deferred maintenance backlog, which is guesstimated at $8 billion.)

Sadly, the amount that the agency has been getting from the LWCF has dwindled even as the need has grown. More or less in step with a disappointing downward trend in funding for all the federal land management agencies, the LWCF appropriations received by the National Park Service have generally trended downward in the new millennium – $124.8 million in FY2001, $130.0 million in FY2002, $74.0 million in FY2003, $41.7 million in FY2004, $55.1 million in FY2005, $34.4 million in FY2006.

The Bush administration deserves no plaudits for its management of this sorry situation. Under the Bush administration, budget requests for national park land acquisition funds fell from $172 million in 2000 to less than $22 million for this year. You don’t need to be sending any flowers to the Democratic-controlled Congress, either, because neglect of the Park Service is bipartisan. Congress ended up providing the Park Service with only $44 million for land acquisition this year (double what the president asked for), and more than $8 million of that will go to administrative services associated with land purchases.

Many hope that an infusion of $100 million to $150 million a year from the proposed National Park Centennial Fund will enable the Park Service to get rid of most of its the enormous acquisitions backlog. But I’m skeptical, myself. There’s an awful lot of wishful thinking built into that model.

Personally, I think it’s high time that Congress pumped some serious money into the LWCF by boosting the authorized level to at least $1.5 billion (from the current $900 million) and dedicating income from sources capable of providing an addition half-billion dollars or so a year – at least until the acquisition backlogs are reduced to manageable size at the National Park Service and all three of the federal government’s other major land management agencies. This would be a lot more certain than the political football that is the National Park Centennial Fund and would signal that Congress has a sober interest in the pay-as-you-go funding of national parks.