For more than a half-century, the federal government has used money collected from oil and natural gas drilling to buy swaths of wilderness and other land and set them aside for recreation and wildlife conservation.
But on Monday, Congress let that long-lasting and popular program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, expire despite broad support within both parties for its continuation.
Congress failed to reauthorize the fund for the second time in three years because key members of the House and Senate could not agree about how to pay for the program going forward. The fund's expiration casts an uncertain future on ongoing projects and prevents new oil and gas receipts from being used for conservation work until the program is reauthorized.
Since its inception in 1965, the program has protected millions of acres nationwide, including according to one analysis at least 491,000 acres between 2014 to 2017 alone. Federal agencies and state governments have used the conservation fund to do everything from building swimming pools and basketball courts in cities to expanding wildlife refuges and national parks like Acadia in Maine and Grand Canyon in Arizona.
“We're really disappointed that this really lovely, wildly successful conservation program is gone,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. “I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that America would be a fundamentally different place without the program.”
The lapse also speaks to the growing difficulty in Congress for members of different parties and chambers to strike compromises that keep even popular parts of the federal government functioning.
Congress “could have easily solved this problem months ago,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of the LWCF.
Leaders in the Senate and House found themselves at loggerheads over whether to make funding for the program permanent. Although LWCF funding comes from the government's cut of oil and gas drilling on public lands, Congress needs to sign off on that spending every year. Some years, Congress failed to appropriate the full $900 million authorized for the program.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wants to fix those spending lapses by making that $900 million in funding for LWCF mandatory every year. Her bill, which will be marked up in committee on Tuesday, has the support of Burr along with several GOP senators on the panel, including Steve Daines of Montana and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Last week, those senators took to the Senate floor to argue in favor of reupping the program.
Their counterparts on the House Natural Resources Committee have advanced a package that would permanently reauthorize the fund like the Senate bill would, but that would require funding to be approved by Congress on a yearly basis. That committee's chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), wants the renewal of the fund to be paired with some of his other priorities, including a plan to use some of that same oil and gas money for repairs to roads and other infrastructure in national parks.
LWCF "is politically popular, and therefore they see the program as having leverage," said Jonathan Asher, a senior representative of the Wilderness Society.
In a statement Monday, Bishop said that the “LWCF can and will be reauthorized.”
“The best path forward is to include it in a broader legislative lands package that addresses the National Park maintenance backlog and other lands-related measures,” he added.
This is not the first time the program has expired. Bishop took credit in 2015 for letting the program lapse because he believed too little of the money went to states that “know best the needs of the people in their communities.” In western states such as Utah, the program is sometimes viewed with suspicion as a vehicle for the federal government to scoop up more land.
Ultimately, Congress agreed to extend the program for three more years to give legislators time to come to an agreement about how to change the program.
Bishop's current package would guarantee that 40 percent of LWCF money goes to stateside work. In recent years, the fund's allotment for the states has fallen as low as 12.5 percent in past years, his office said.
President Trump's administration has officially weighed in to support permanent reauthorization. But the White House's budget proposals have called for cutting funding for the program down to just $8 million — a suggestion that has rankled even some Republicans.
“I’m disappointed to see the significant reduction in proposed funding for LWCF,” Daines, the Senate Republican from Montana, told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in May during an appropriations hearing.
In response, Zinke argued that his department first needed to address the $11.6 billion backlog in park maintenance before spending more money to expand parkland.
“I’ve long been supporter of LWCF program,” Zinke said then. “As a former congressman I’ve seen the benefits of the LWCF program. I’ve been a supporter of permanent reauthorization. It’s hard to justify taking in more land when we haven’t addressed the maintenance problem of our current holdings.”
Earlier this year, Burr went so far as to vote against a GOP package of spending cuts because it included slashes to the LWCF. He and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined every Democrat to reject the measure.
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