A section of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund has been responsible for preserving historic sites, parks and the trail.

A section of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund has been responsible for preserving historic sites, parks and the trail. Jaminnbenji / Shutterstock.com

Amid Shutdown Battle, A Conservation Fund Seeks A Lifeline

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is also going to expire next week.

As the cal­en­dar flips closer to Sept. 30, the talk on Cap­it­ol Hill is dom­in­ated by Planned Par­ent­hood and the loom­ing gov­ern­ment shut­down. But some fear that lost in the shuffle is an­oth­er, much smal­ler dead­line that could go un­ad­dressed.

The Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund is a pop­u­lar, 50-year-old pro­gram that uses roy­al­ties from fed­er­al oil and gas leases for land ac­quis­i­tion and parks across the coun­try. It’s been re­spons­ible for pre­serving na­tion­al parks, his­tor­ic­al sites, and even the Ap­palachi­an Trail.

And its au­thor­iz­ing le­gis­la­tion ex­pires at the end of the month.

Typ­ic­ally, reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the $900 mil­lion pro­gram is an easy, bi­par­tis­an af­fair. But a dis­pute over how much money the pro­gram should be send­ing to states has held up a re­new­al of the pro­gram, and now House Nat­ur­al Re­sources chair­man Rob Bish­op says he’s con­tent to let it ex­pire next week.

House Demo­crats have a bill that would keep the pro­gram alive, with 198 bi­par­tis­an co­spon­sors (19 of them Re­pub­lic­an). In the Sen­ate, a per­man­ent reau­thor­iz­a­tion was in­cluded in a bi­par­tis­an en­ergy bill that passed the En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee. That bill, part of a com­prom­ise between Re­pub­lic­an Lisa Murkowski and Demo­crat Maria Can­t­well, would also tweak the fund­ing for­mula that changes the fed­er­al-state fund­ing split.

But, bar­ring an un­pre­ced­en­ted spurt of pro­ductiv­ity, it’s un­likely that a stan­dalone LW­CF reau­thor­iz­a­tion is go­ing to make it through both cham­bers be­fore next Thursday, es­pe­cially giv­en the im­pend­ing gov­ern­ment-fund­ing dead­line. Sup­port­ers are left look­ing for whatever op­tions they can.

A “pass­able vehicle” in the short term would seem to be a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, which means the race is on to en­sure that whatever fund­ing meas­ure Con­gress comes up with in­cludes the LW­CF. It wasn’t in­cluded in the Sen­ate con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion set to be voted on Thursday (that bill, which also de­funds Planned Par­ent­hood, is likely to fail and be fol­lowed by a clean fund­ing bill).

Last week, 53 sen­at­ors—in­clud­ing 12 Re­pub­lic­ans—signed onto a let­ter ur­ging re­new­al of the “crit­ic­al in­vest­ment pro­gram.” House Demo­crats have a count­down clock and or­gan­ized an hour of floor speeches on the pro­gram last week, where Nat­ur­al Re­sources rank­ing mem­ber Raul Gri­jalva called it “Amer­ica’s best parks pro­gram” and chas­tised Bish­op for not hold­ing a hear­ing on the LW­CF reau­thor­iz­a­tion.

“Ideally, we wouldn’t just keep this pro­gram go­ing, we’d make some policy changes and get a full reau­thor­iz­a­tion,” said Josh Saks, le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fund. “But the ba­sic goal is just to keep the lights on, so that means look­ing at any pass­able vehicle.”

And Demo­crats have wasted no time blam­ing the ma­jor­ity for put­ting the pro­gram on the brink of ex­pir­a­tion. In a state­ment Wed­nes­day, New Hamp­shire Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen de­cried the “man­u­fac­tured crisis” that could lead to the pro­gram get­ting shut down.

“This is in­cred­ibly short­sighted and sets a dan­ger­ous pre­ced­ent for oth­er im­port­ant con­ser­va­tion pro­grams that will soon need Con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al,” Shaheen said.

House Demo­crat­ic sources say they’re also hope­ful it will make it in­to that cham­ber’s con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, but an aide for the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee said it had not been in­cluded in any dis­cus­sions yet.

Bish­op, a Utah Re­pub­lic­an, re­mains op­posed to a short-term ex­ten­sion, a spokes­man said, since he wants a lar­ger re­form bill. Bish­op has said that the pro­gram tips too far in the dir­ec­tion of Wash­ing­ton, and wants to en­sure that state and loc­al gov­ern­ments get more con­trol over fund­ing. Right now, about 62 per­cent of funds go to fed­er­al land ac­quis­i­tion, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port, while the state-grant pro­gram gets 25 per­cent.

The Sen­ate en­ergy bill would give 40 per­cent of the funds to states and 40 per­cent to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, giv­ing Con­gress dis­cre­tion over the re­main­ing 20 per­cent. But some Re­pub­lic­ans in that cham­ber say that’s not enough—Sen. John Bar­rasso has tried to raise the state fund­ing level to 50 per­cent (he offered an amend­ment to do that in a com­mit­tee markup, but it failed).

All of which means that the clock is still tick­ing. Should Sept. 30 pass without a le­gis­lat­ive tweak, the In­teri­or De­part­ment would lose its abil­ity to ac­crue rev­en­ues from oil and gas com­pan­ies. The gov­ern­ment would be able to use its un­ap­pro­pri­ated bal­ance, but sup­port­ers say it would cre­ate un­cer­tainty about the fu­ture of parks spend­ing.

map cir­cu­lated by the Cen­ter for West­ern Pri­or­it­ies shows the hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres ad­ded to vari­ous parks from the LW­CF—and the gaps in parks that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment could still ac­quire with fu­ture fund­ing. And pub­lic lands groups say it’s es­sen­tial that the gov­ern­ment be able to keep pre­serving as much as pos­sible.

“Pro­jects are in the queue, but if the fund dis­ap­pears, who knows,” said Andy French for the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters. “So right now, we’re just look­ing for whatever stop­gap vehicle we can get to put this in place.”

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)