The Land and Water Conservation Fund enjoys bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. The fund helps pay for the conservation of things that most people like: parks, recreation areas, wildlife preserves, Civil War battlefields. The money comes from fees paid by oil and gas companies for offshore drilling rights.
But the fund’s legislative authorization expired nearly four months ago, at the end of the past fiscal year. Members of both houses of Congress managed to advance bills to reauthorize the fund permanently, but the legislative process can be glacial and the fund was still awaiting final passage when the border wall dispute reared up and put everything on hold.
Now, despite its popularity, the fund — known to supporters simply by its acronym, LWCF — is right where so much other legislation is: in shutdown purgatory.
“LWCF is being held hostage. We’re waiting to move. We see this as an easy win that everyone would get behind, but we’re waiting,” said Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at the Nature Conservancy and a spokesman for a coalition that supports the fund.
He and other advocates for the fund, while frustrated and worried about land deals that are hanging in the balance, aren’t panicking. They know the fund still enjoys political support. They also admit that the fund’s problems are small potatoes compared to some of the other effects of the partial government shutdown, including economic distress suffered by hundreds of thousands of workers missing paychecks.
But what happened to the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a reminder that the shutdown has also effectively halted one of the most important duties of the government: the passage of laws. The political dysfunction in Washington has reached the point where Congress might struggle to pass a resolution endorsing apple pie. (Imagine the outrage from the powerful Cherry Pie Lobby.)
The conservation fund had been authorized by Congress to tap up to $900 million annually from fees paid by oil and gas companies for offshore leases, although some of that money is routinely diverted by lawmakers to pet projects, according to Cors. The fund has been used for projects large and small that are prioritized by the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.
The lag in authorization for the fund has held up land deals being negotiated. For example, the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization, is counting on about $10 million from the fund to help conserve more than 10,000 acres of private timberland along 17 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California. The delayed authorization of the fund is also stalling a private matching gift and putting the land deal on hold.
“That’s the only national fund we can draw on to help make those important steps in land protection,” said Diane Regas, president and chief executive of the Trust for Public Land. “We were really optimistic about it passing.”
Normally, the Treasury diverts oil and gas fees into the fund, but that hasn’t been happening since Oct. 1, according to the fund’s supporters. They’re fuzzy on whether that lost funding will ever be replaced. They fear the money is lost forever.
“We’re missing out on a bunch of money every day that could be and should be set aside for conservation,” said Jonathan Asher, a government relations manager at the Wilderness Society.
The fund seemed to have plenty of political momentum during the fall. The Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee at the time, Rob Bishop (Utah), joined with Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), then the ranking Democrat, to pass a bill giving the fund permanent authorization. Their counterparts in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also supported full authorization.
But the legislation didn’t get an up-or-down vote in the full Senate. That’s not surprising: This is a small program and the Senate calendar is crowded, so most legislation winds up bundled with other bills. The conservation fund became part of a bundle known as the public lands package. That package seemed likely to pass as part of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded — at least temporarily.
“We actually thought we were going to get it over the finish line in December. The land package had a lot of local and state-specific issues, but the big national-ticket thing was the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Cors said.
Things didn’t go as planned. When Murkowski introduced the lands package on the Senate floor in December and asked for unanimous consent for it to proceed to immediate consideration and a vote, Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah objected.
“We got a bill here that we received at 10 o’clock this morning — 680 pages long,” Lee said.
He complained that his efforts to get a summary of the bill text had been blocked for weeks, and that he’d finally gotten a summary from a lobbyist. He expressed dismay that the lands package included permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“Coming from a state where two-thirds of the land is owned by the federal government, where we can’t do anything without leave from the federal government, this hurts,” Lee said. He said he’d agree to the bill only with an amendment to the Antiquities Act — used by presidents for more than a century to set aside land as protected national monuments — that would provide an exemption for Utah.
Murkowski, after explaining the complexities of putting together legislation that could win passage in both houses of Congress, acknowledged that a final vote on the lands package would have to wait. She said it would be among the first things voted on when the new Congress met in January.
“We’re going to put it on hold for another month,” she said.
It has now been more than a month since she said that.
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund preserves and maintains public lands all across the country at absolutely no cost to the taxpayer,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Thursday. “It protects America’s great outdoors, boosts our economy and has strong bipartisan support. The uncertainty surrounding LWCF’s future holds us back from planning, building and maintaining valuable recreational areas across the country. We need to vote on permanent LWCF as soon as possible, and I trust congressional leadership will follow through on that.”
Until the border wall impasse is resolved, Congress is unlikely to pass any laws, even the ones that aren’t polarizing.
That’s a problem for the people trying to put together a land deal in Montana, east of Missoula, that would conserve 6,000 acres of private timberland near Lolo National Forest. And it’s fouling another land deal that would put 22,000 acres of timberland in a conservation easement near Montana’s Kootenai National Forest.
“It’s uncertain what’s going to happen going forward. It’s depressing,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a Missoula-based nonprofit group. He said he worries that the private landowners will back out of the conservation deals.
“These deals, they’re not around forever; you have to take advantage when they’re right in front of you,” Tawney said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a federally protected area in Montana. It is Lolo National Forest, not Lola National Forest.