Report proposes conservation overhaul

Former officials recommend Interior Department fund be turned into an independent trust paid for by royalties from energy development on public lands.

Congress should consider turning the Interior Department's Land and Water Conservation Fund, the main mechanism for federal and state acquisition of park and recreation land, into an independent trust funded by royalties from the development of conventional and renewable energy on public lands, according to a new report.

Prepared by mostly former federal and state environmental officials, the report was presented Monday afternoon by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The report says the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in 1965 and funded through federal land sales and various federal recreation fees and oil and gas leasing fees, has not been able to keep up with needs for recreation space.

The fund received a fiscal 2008 appropriation of $255 million, including $155 million for land acquisition, but the trust should spend $3.2 billion annually and $5 billion per year by fiscal 2015, the report says.

In a preface, Bingaman and Alexander, who served as honorary co-chairmen of the Outdoor Resources Review Group that wrote the report, called wildlife, parks, forests, farms, ranchlands and historic places "central to the nation's economy, health and quality of life."

"We are past due for a serious look at where we stand as a country in achieving our goal of safeguarding these resources," they said. "Today, with a new president and a new administration, we have the opportunity to put our conservation efforts on solid footing for generations to follow."

The report also says the fund "is buried within the National Park Service bureaucracy" and proposes that Salazar establish "by secretarial order" a new bureau on par with the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to administer the fund or trust.

It also charges that federal conservation and outdoor recreation activities are fragmented among several agencies and it urges the Obama administration to consider establishing a federal interagency council to integrate outdoor resources policy.

The report specifically notes the Agriculture Department spends $2 billion per year on short-term leases on land in the Conservation Reserve Program, but public access for hunting and fishing or other recreational pursuits is "not a primary objective and landowner liability is a major stumbling block in some states."

The trust, with the assistance of the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Geographic Society, could use geospatial planning to develop allocation formulas for federal, state and local participation and coordinate interagency programs, the report says.

Apparently anticipating concerns from landowners and farmers, the report also says that "guarantees of privacy, confidentiality, protection of proprietary financial data and similar concerns can be built in at every level."

The Outdoor Resources Review Group was organized by Henry Diamond, a former commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation who is now a partner at environmental law firm Beveridge & Diamond; Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund; and Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society.

Salazar said on Monday he would review the report and noted that it could help spur job growth, improve health and wellness, create energy and battle global climate change.

"Some of you will naturally ask the question 'Well, why now?' I think the answer is it is in the most difficult times of our country that we look to the landscapes to refuel the spirit of the greatness of this country," he said.

Cyra Master contributed to this story.