The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is about to let the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapse. Here’s why you should care.

Kelli Flory, a teacher on spring break from Union, Mich, takes a photo of the canons at the Pennsylvania Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A popular fund that has supported hundreds of parks around the country is set to go away in less than two weeks, and Congressional dithering is to blame.

That’s the essence of a charge by House Democrats who say the Congressional majority is making no move to reauthorize the fund, despite its history of broad support among both political parties for half a century.

Several Democrats took to the House floor on Wednesday night to call on leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee to allow a vote on reauthorizing the program, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Bills that would permanently authorize the LWCF, as the program is called, have been introduced with bipartisan backing in both legislative chambers, but there have been no hearings and no move to schedule votes on the House side.

The program uses royalty money from federal oil and gas leases to pay for land acquisition for federal, state and local parks in all 50 states. Throughout its history, it has helped preserve battlefields and other historic sites as well as scenic and recreational treasures, such as the Appalachian Trail.

[“This could go away," Interior official says of 50-year-old parks fund.]

“The clock is running out,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, who earlier this month issued a second formal request for a hearing on the House version of the reauthorization bill. While Senate Republicans and Democrats managed to reach a compromise on funding the program, there have been no such discussions on the House side, he said, and no explanation for the lack of movement.

“We should stop playing political games and do what the public clearly wants us to do,” he said. “We should permanently reauthorize and fully fund the program – it’s that simple.”

A spokeswoman for committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) dismissed the suggestion that the measure is being deliberately stalled. “This seems like a Chicken Little cry from the Democrats,” Julia Slingsby said.

“There have been a lot of laws that haven’t been reauthorized in years – like the ESA and the CZMA that are doing just fine,” said Slingsby, using the acronyms for the federal Endangered Species Act and Coastal Zones Management Act. “Chairman Bishop is actively considering reforms to the LWCF, including getting the states more money for conservation efforts.”

A number of conservative Republicans have expressed a reluctance to reauthorize the fund in its current form. Some have suggested changes to limit the federal government’s ability to use the money to expand existing national parks.

Historically, the LWCF has helped preserve some of the nation’s most iconic parks and historic places — from the national battlefields at Manassas, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa., to the Everglades and Mount Vernon — while also helping local governments acquire land for playgrounds, greenways and ballfields. The size of the fund is capped at $900 million annually, but the money allocated by Congress is substantially smaller in most years.

Environmental groups strongly oppose changing the fund’s mandate, saying the LWCF remains vital in securing land buffers that prevent private development from encroaching on some of the country’s most famous natural landscapes.