Editorial: Congress lets worthwhile Land and Water Conservation Fund expire
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the latest long-standing, worthwhile program that has been allowed to expire for lack of congressional action.
Congress authorizes about $900 million annually for the LWCF to purchase and conserve land. The money comes from royalties paid by energy companies drilling on public land. Taxpayers pony up nothing.
The fund has funneled more than $600 million into Washington state over 50 years. Locally, it’s benefited conservation at Riverside State Park and Dishman Hills Natural Area, among many other places. It’s funded improvements at Friendship and High Bridge parks in Spokane, and Sunset Park in Airway Heights.
In August, real estate, conservation, and hunting and fishing groups lobbied U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in support of reauthorization. She told them it was a priority, but recently said the program needed to be “modernized,” a statement that’s similar to her half-hearted support for the Export-Import Bank.
The Ex-Im Bank is another example of a program that works in the real world but fails to pass a political litmus test.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is the House Natural Resources chairman, and he is determined to uphold the far-right view that if the government is involved, it must be wrong. In this case, he believes the feds already hold too much land and he’s vowed to stop any expansion on his watch.
The National Park Service says it needs to make additional acquisitions to secure “in-holdings,” or privately owned land within parks. If such land isn’t purchased, private developers could encroach on the national park experience.
The reauthorization of the LWCF has broad bipartisan support and would pass if put to a vote. But Bishop has made sure that doesn’t happen. He wants a larger share of the money to be diverted to local governments. Other LWCF critics say the feds can’t keep up with maintenance in national parks, so it shouldn’t continue with acquisitions.
But as Sen. Maria Cantwell and others have noted, much of the parks maintenance backlog is related to roads, highways and bridges, which is funded by the Highway Trust Fund. And that’s another program Congress has failed to renew.
Plus, while Congress can authorize up to $900 million annually (a figure that hasn’t been adjusted for inflation), it sometimes raids the fund. The diverted money could be spent on maintenance.
Cantwell’s idea is to change how the fund is divvied up, with 40 percent to states, 40 percent to federal agencies and the remainder left to Congress. She’d also called for permanent funding to avoid the politics of reauthorization. But this has also met with resistance.
The Park Service certainly needs larger appropriations for maintenance, but taking that money from the LWCF hinders efforts to consolidate holdings. Congress could help with maintenance by passing a highway bill that boosts money for park roads.
But there’s no excuse for doing nothing, and that appears to be the current plan.