In horror movies, there’s a common trope where someone tries to bring a beloved person or an animal back from the dead, and what comes back looks similar at first blush, but is actually its opposite? Something similar is taking place right now in the House of Representatives where Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-UT) authored a discussion draft for a bill to kill and reanimate the corpse of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a crucial program that funds outdoor recreation and conservation projects.
LWCF is a fifty-year-old program that reinvests a portion of the royalties from offshore oil and gas leasing in recreation and conservation priorities. The program has a tremendous track record of success and broad bipartisan support, but it expired at the end of September. Rep. Bishop has been one of the most vocal critics of LWCF, and some have argued that he single-handedly prevented the program from being reauthorized before its expiration. Why this outsized power? Rep. Bishop is the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and in this role, he sets the agenda for what public lands legislation comes up for a vote in the House. Despite all the wonderful public lands in his home state of Utah, he doesn’t seem to be a big fan of keeping parks and forests open, as indicated by his congressional study group that’s looking at how to hand over American public lands to western states and private interests. And even though LWCF has a ton of support in both parties and chambers (currently it has a list of 195 co-sponsors), he let LWCF reauthorization languish.
Just yesterday, he released a bill on LWCF that effectively destroys the program, redirecting the funds to expand offshore gas and drilling, dramatically limiting how much of the funding can be used for public lands, and creating a maze of bureaucracy that denies local communities a voice in land management decisions. While some of Rep. Bishop’s concerns, like the balance of funding for state program, may have merit, his approach effectively annihilates the program without any hope of gaining support in the House. In contrast, in the Senate, Sens. Murkowski (R-AK) and Cantwell (D-WA) worked on a bipartisan agreement to renew the program that garnered strong support across the aisle. Rep. Bishop’s draft bill would turn LWCF into something with little resemblance to the program that has historically been a tremendous success story.
Our policy team dug into the bill to help us understand what the bill would do:
- Limit federal land and water acquisitions to less than 3.5% of total funding. This was formerly the heart of the LWCF program, dedicated to clearing up inholdings within existing public lands and acquiring access points to facilitate greater opportunities to enjoy public lands, for example by creating river put-ins and take-outs. Within that meager 3.5%, only 15% of total acreage acquired could be in the West, where public lands management issues are often most acute.
- Direct more than one-third of the total expenditures under the program for programs wholly unrelated to conservation and recreation like payments to counties, training for oil-industry workers, and developing technology to increase drilling in the Arctic.
- Create a thicket of new requirements to tie the hands of future Congresses and impose a top-down structure on the way LWCF money can be spent, denying say for local communities and flexibility for land managers.
LWCF is a proven program with long history of success and broad, bipartisan support. This discussion draft, appearing weeks after Congress let the program expire, makes clear that criticisms of the program are driven by an anti-public lands agenda, not by legitimate concerns with the program.
Are you concerned that this public lands-eating zombie will gain traction? Reach out to your representatives today to ask them to reauthorize LWCF as-is, right now.