The $19 Billion Theft That’s Depriving Americans of Parks and Recreation

For decades, Congress has diverted money from a fund meant to protect wildlife and preserve open space. Now, with Republicans in control, it may kill the program altogether.

Arches National Park, Utah. (Photo: Jacob Frank/Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Here’s a brilliant idea: Make oil and gas companies pay to conserve land for wildlife threatened by climate change. Crazy, right? But it’s already the law, and it has been for the last 50 years: In 1965, by a unanimous vote, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund and declared that the government would spend $900 million a year to preserve open space, protect wildlife, and encourage outdoor recreation—all of it paid for with royalties from offshore oil and mineral extraction.

So why are our national parks falling to pieces? Why is it such a struggle to protect endangered species? Why is having someplace outdoors to play—someplace decent, I mean—a strange and dreamlike notion for most American children?

The sad reality is that Congress actually allocated only $306 million to LWCF in 2014, and that’s the way it’s been almost from the start: LWCF has gotten its mandated funding just twice in 50 years. Altogether, Congress has diverted $19 billion from the fund (words such as “stolen” or “looted” come to mind), spending it instead in the general budget. That is, Congress has diverted more than the $16 billion it has allowed the LWCF to spend on conservation. Just to put both numbers in perspective, during that same 50-year period, Congress happily “pumped more than $470 billion into the oil and gas industry in the form of generous, never-expiring tax breaks,” according to a recent article in Mother Jones.

Even that mythical $900 million target may soon disappear. Authorization for LWCF expires on Sept. 30 of this year. An amendment to permanently authorize the fund fell one vote short of passing last month, although it was an amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill that Obama has vowed to veto. One promising sign is that the amendment enjoyed bipartisan support, with 14 Republican senators joining in—and at least one of those who voted against it, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, claimed to have acted mainly on procedural grounds. Also promising, President Obama has for the first time requested the full $900 million allocation for the new budget, up from his $600 million request last year.

Why should we be spending that kind of money? (OK, we shouldn’t: That $900 million annual allocation should have been indexed to inflation, meaning the current Land and Water Conservation budget would be more like $3.2 billion. But keep dreaming.) Even at its dismal present funding level, LWCF has made life better in every state in the union and almost every community, protecting and improving more than 42,000 parks, forests, trails, beaches, and wildlife refuges.

It’s not just some obscure federal program that matters only out in the big open Western states, though it certainly provides benefits there, too. One recent LWCF purchase in the “Crown of the Continent” ecosystem, stretching from western Montana into Canada, protects habitat for everything from sage- and sharp-tailed grouse to cutthroat trout and arctic grayling. But let’s say you’re in the northeastern states, which are notoriously deprived of national parks or much else in the way of federal open space. Heck, let’s say you’re stuck in an office building in Manhattan. You can still enjoy the results of LWCF every time you look out to where Liberty State Park protects that famous statue (along with a lot of shorebirds and marine life). You can enjoy it in Maine, where LWCF created the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Heck, I can practically walk out the door of my house in Connecticut and see the LWCF at work. It has spent $10 million over the years to create the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, protecting habitat for ospreys, bald eagles, and many other species in the Connecticut River Valley. Over the past half century, LWCF has supported the purchase of 2.6 million acres of land nationwide and protected almost the same amount through conservation easements, in which the government permanently protects a parcel of land by buying development rights but not the land itself.

What do we lose by not funding LWCF properly? “Today federal agencies report a $30 billion backlog in projects, including many needed to protect already vulnerable habitats,” Field and Stream recently reported. “State agencies say they are holding a $27 billion backlog. And when it comes to saving and protecting fish and wildlife habitat, delay often means permanent loss.” One project that lost out in last year’s puny LWCF budget was a plan to protect an additional 6,000 acres in the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, known for hosting a huge array of duck species and many other threatened birds, such as the loggerhead shrike and the ferruginous hawk.

About the only serious philosophical objection to LWCF comes from right-wingers who regard any ownership of federal land as “robbery,” or worse, a way of depriving honest landowners of their private property rights. But use of easements by LWCF, and through the Conservation Easement Incentive Act, can have exactly the opposite effect: Farmers and ranchers can often afford to stay on their land only because of payments or tax deductions from selling conservation or development rights. That’s also often the best deal for conservationists too.

“If you look at federal lands of the United States, you can’t do landscape-scale conservation without doing conservation on private land,” said Russ Shay, director of public policy at the Land Trust Alliance. “And you couldn’t begin to afford to buy all those private lands.” Such easements, Shay said, account for around a million acres per year of protected habitat.

So, naturally, Congress allowed the Conservation Easement Incentive Act to expire at the beginning of the year. Probably too busy arranging more subsidies for their pals in the oil and gas industry.