LWCF modernization: Restoring the promise
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has for more than 50 years been the federal government’s primary form of land acquisition funding billions of dollars in new land buying and supported state grant programs. Over the last five years, the program has been subject to much debate and eventually both permanently authorized and funded.
However, during that debate many members were still left wanting the opportunity to support amendments and modernize this 55-year-old law. Although the program is now permanent, we haven’t fixed many of the flaws identified with the program. Just last year, the Government Accountability Office issued two reports highlighting serious flaws in the LWCF program. One report highlighted that BLM failed to track land purchases through LWCF and the other highlighted that in direct conflict with federal law the U.S. Forest Service spent 80 percent of its acquisition money in the Western United States, when law directed them to only spend 15 percent. This report highlights what the Western Caucus has said for decades that LWCF isn’t about securing lands for recreation for all of America, but a program bent on buying up lands in the West.
During the House debate members of the House Western Caucus were at the center of the effort to push amendments to bring the promise of the LWCF to all Americans not just a few. Unfortunately, we couldn’t debate those amendments, however today, more than a half dozen members are introducing legislation to modernize the LWCF and restore the promise to all of America.
To accomplish the promise of LWCF we are working to direct the program’s funding to expand the federal footprint to areas where recreational opportunities are lacking. Two of the centerpieces of that effort are Rep. Rick Crawford’s (R-Ark.) “30 for 30” bill and Rep. Garrett Graves (R-La.) “25 for the Shore.” Both bills place additional priority for federal acquisition on areas that have been historically under invested by LWCF. The “30 for 30” effort focuses federal LWCF acquisition on states that are less than 30 percent of the federal lands. Similar to a Senate effort by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to protect 30 percent of lands, this bill puts the federal priority on expanding the federal footprint to areas where opportunities simply aren’t available currently. The “25 for the Shore” effort is like a previous Senate effort by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) which brings the money generated by LWCF back to areas where it is generated, our coastlines. This bill directs federal funding to protecting areas within 10 miles of the shore, bringing the promise back to coastal communities for recreation and coastal protection.
Other bills included in this proposal include Rep. Andy Bigg’s (R-Ariz.) bill to increase funding for the “Making Public Lands Public” which focuses LWCF funding on increasing access for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) emergency maintenance legislation which allows the secretary to use funding for emergency maintenance to protect human health, access or critical environmental protection. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Western Caucus chairman, is introducing legislation to mandate that in counties that are already majority owned by the federal government any new acquisitions must be offset resulting in no net increase of federal lands. This provision supported by the National Association of Counties is designed to ensure that instead of adding acres in a county already 90 percent owned by the federal government, we balance our ownership in these heavily federally owned counties. Natural Resources Ranking Member Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has legislation that creates a true urban parks program, restores the requirement that new lands be priorities in the East and makes “technical corrections” to the act.
Taken together, all these bills will enhance the promise of LWCF and focus the program on areas that have been historically under supported and protected. As the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) once said, “each and every one of us must cherish this planet, for it is likely the only home we will ever know.” By making these changes to LWCF, we can ensure that we move to preserve more lands and green spaces closer to low income and park-poor communities, closer to our eastern cities and major population centers thereby bringing the recreational economy opportunity to more Americans.
Rep. Paul Gosar represents Arizona’s 4th District and is chairman of the Western Caucus.
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