Congress revives fund critical to Kitsap’s parks
In September, Congress killed a long-running federal program that supported thousands of parks around the country, including dozens in Kitsap County.
On Friday, Congress brought the Land and Water Conservation Fund back to life — at least for a little while.
The fund's reauthorization was part of a larger spending bill that — had it not been approved this week — might have sparked a government shutdown. The bill allows the fund to spend $450 million in 2016. That's more than this year's level but about half of the $900 million designated for the fund each year.
Reauthorization came with a catch: The LWCF expires after three years.
"Obviously what we need is permanent reauthorization and not for this to be just kicked down the road," said Karin Frank, spokeswoman for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. "But it's very amazing the program is still alive."
The LWCF had for 51 years used a portion of offshore oil and gas drilling fees to protect and improve natural areas, farms and parks around the country. Using no tax dollars, the fund invested nearly $600 million in hundreds of projects in Washington state. About $5 million was been spent in Kitsap since the early 1970s.
The fund was canceled when Congress failed to reauthorize it on Sept. 30. The move sparked outcry from several conservation and outdoor recreation groups. Parks leaders in Kitsap warned that the fund's cancellation would halt or slow progress on several planned projects.
Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, and Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, were credited as four of the main movers behind the LWCF's revival this week.
LWCF dollars have paid for the expansion of Olympic National Park and improvements to dozens of state parks, including Manchester in South Kitsap and Illahee in Bremerton.
Gordon Field at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, Suquamish's public dock, Island Lake Park, Bainbridge's Strawberry Hill Park and Liberty Bay Marina are some of the other Kitsap beneficiaries.
The Bremerton Parks Department has been particularly successful in obtaining LWCF dollars. About 30 percent of all park redevelopment funds over the last 10 years came from the LWCF. Nearly $1 million went toward recent efforts to improve Lions, Blueberry and Evergreen parks.
Kitsap County had been counting on a $500,000 LWCF grant to help purchase land south of Port Gamble for a 200-acre mountain bike park. It's not yet clear what this week's reauthorization will mean for the grant.
The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition is confident that several other high-profile projects will now get the funding promised before the LWCF was canceled. The projects include improvements for the Pacific Crest Trail, conservation easements around Mount St. Helens and the preservation of historic farmland at Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island.
Olympic National Park is slated to receive $1.6 million to purchase two acres along Lake Quinault. The property is part of 10 acres of privately-owned land the park hopes to acquire. Private homes along the lake are blamed for sewage problems in the lake and impacts to nearby streams.
The WWRC and other groups have long urged for the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF.
"It's a huge relief to know that this program — that is so important for our state's economy and way of life — will continue ... but LWCF needs permanent reauthorization and full funding so that we can continue to protect our state's natural resources and heritage," WWRC Director Andrea McNamara Doyle said.
Opposition to the LWCF has been led by Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, who wants more drilling royalties to benefit the energy industry. He also opposes the use of LWCF dollars to expand federal lands in Utah and other Western states.
LWCF has been whittled down in recent decades. Each year, $900 million from drilling royalties are deposited into the LWCF account — yet the bulk of the money is then diverted to other programs by Congress. The Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition estimates that about $17 billion has been funneled away from conservation and recreation purposes over the last 50 years.
The LWCF was established by Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1964. The purpose, he said then, was to provide Americans "refreshment of body and spirit" through wider access to open public spaces.