Save Our Heritage!

A popular conservation program became a bargaining chip in a bid to lift the crude oil export ban.

December 16, 2015

Back in October, Congress allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire for the first time in its half-century existence. Even if you’ve never heard of the program before, chances are you’ve benefited from the LWCF. That is, if you’re a beach lover, parks enthusiast, or battlefield buff. The fund, created in 1965, calls for $900 million of the royalties paid by the offshore oil and gas industry every year to be used for restoring and conserving our cultural and natural heritage in all 50 states.

Last night, congressional leaders announced that they’d agreed to resuscitate the popular program, which was a sticking point in budget talks that dragged into this week and threatened to shut down the government. The $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill provides a three-year extension of the LWCF and funds the program at $450 million per year (half what it should get, but more on that below). Democrats demanded the reinstatement of the LWCF, as well as the extension of a series of expired or expiring renewable energy tax breaks, as conditions for lifting the decades-long ban on crude oil exports. Republicans also cut numerous riders that they had tacked on to the legislation in exchange for the Democrats’ support on crude exports. Congress will vote on the bill on Friday, and then it goes to Obama.

Sales of American crude to overseas buyers have been prohibited, by and large, since the 1970s energy crises. There are exceptions: We sell oil to Canada, and the Commerce Department recently green-lighted swaps with Mexico. At the same time, we’re still importing oil, with one out of every two barrels we use coming from elsewhere. The White House isn’t in favor of lifting the ban, and the NRDC (disclosure), Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society are among several green groups against the move.

“Our fear is this will lead to more pressure to do more offshore drilling,” says Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection program. “It’s sad to have to hitch something good like LWCF to such a bad idea. It is indicative of how even the most bipartisan things can get stuck in this time of incredible partisanship.”

When Congress created the program, in 1965, it was the culmination of a bipartisan effort to preserve our national heritage by protecting the places Americans treasure. It continues to draw support from both sides of the aisle: On the eve of its expiration, Republicans and Democrats alike took to the floor in a failed, last-ditch attempt to extend it.

But the LWCF is also no stranger to abuse. While it’s supposed to receive $900 million a year (a pittance compared with the $88 billion the big five oil companies are expected to make in profits this year alone), Congress regularly dips into the fund to help make up for cash shortages elsewhere. For instance, while the Department of the Interior collected more than $9 billion from offshore energy production in fiscal year 2013, the LWCF received only $306 million in 2014. To date, only 45 percent of the funds collected through the program have gone to its intended purpose of conservation.

The extension is a “disappointing mixed bag,” Alan Rowsome, the Wilderness Society’s senior director of government relations for lands, said in a statement. “Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to permanently renew and fully fund this important program.”

The LWCF expired two months ago amid controversy over its future and purpose. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, proposed in April that the fund be permanently authorized and fully funded, in order to prevent any future rigmarole over reauthorization. Meanwhile in the House, Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, has led the charge to completely overhaul it. The congressman would rather the funds go toward promoting offshore energy exploration and maintaining existing protected lands than toward safeguarding new ones. (He said last Friday that he is on board with up to a two-year re-up, presumably while he pushes for his reforms of the program, in exchange for ending the crude export ban.)

“A short-term reauthorization is less than ideal," says David Goldston, director of government affairs at NRDC, "but it breaks the impasse that threatened the program right now.”

Over the past half century, the program has helped conserve millions of acres—including the six areas highlighted below. But there’s plenty more to save yet, like fragmented habitat in the Sierras and unprotected stretches of the Appalachian Trail corridor.

Crown of the Continent

Photo: Kartik Ramanathan/Flickr

This mountainous landscape stretches from Wyoming and Idaho through Montana to the Canadian border and is home to grizzlies, wolves, elk—and many, many cattle ranches. LWCF funds in this area have gone toward public–private partnerships that protect both lands and ranching heritage. The program will also help purchase 640 acres of state-owned land in the heart of Grand Teton National Park, blocking commercial development from moving in.

Washington County, Utah

Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

People are drawn to Utah’s Washington County in droves, from retirees seeking warm weather to tourists eager to explore the red rock landscape of Zion National Park and Dixie National Forest. The county also happens to be home to the country’s highest density of threatened Mojave Desert tortoises. Nearly $23 million from LWCF has gone to help curb habitat fragmentation and to build a 62,000-acre reserve for the tortoises and other species.

Lady Bird Lake, Austin

Photo: Shane Pope/Flickr

If you want to go fishing for largemouth bass in downtown Austin, head to Lady Bird Lake, which also boasts sunfish and catfish. For the non-angler, there are boat rentals, as well as hiking and bicycling routes around the lake—all created with the help of LWCF dollars. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department combined LWCF funds with state revenues to create grants for this project and others in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and elsewhere around the Lone Star State.

Prairie Pothole Region

Photo: Krista Lundgren/USFWS

This swath of the Great Plains is called the “duck factory” for a reason: More than half of North America’s waterfowl nest among the invertebrate-rich puddles found in Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, and the Dakotas. Across the region, wetlands are being drained and native grasses tilled to support agriculture. LWCF funds are helping to support conservation easements on private lands to stem the habitat loss. Putting in place these easements can be a time-consuming process, but the interest is there: Some 800 landowners are on a waiting list within the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area, where the ultimate goal is to set up protections for 240,000 acres of wetland and 1.7 million acres of grassland.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

Photo: Jim/Flickr

Last March, 32,557 acres of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan was designated as wilderness, the highest level of conservation protection for federal lands. The LWCF has conserved more than 85 percent of those acres, from scenic bluffs to meandering rivers, according to the LWCF Coalition, which is made up of hundreds of groups from across the country, including the Wilderness Society, National Parks Trust, and Trout Unlimited.

Eastern Forests

Photo: Michael Iris/Flickr

To protect drinking water supplies in the densely populated Northeast, in 2004 Congress passed the Highlands Conservation Act. The law authorized funding from the LWCF to conserve lands in the forested hills of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—areas through which drinking water for some 25 million people runs. In many instances LWCF funding has leveraged more conservation dollars through private, local, and matching funds. To date, more than 30,000 acres have been protected, including New Jersey’s Musconetcong River, shown here. The state estimates that safeguarding open space in the Highlands will save $50 billion over the next 50 years in water treatment costs.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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