Opinion

At LWCF Hearing Today, Focus On Conservation Instead Of Land Grabs

Will Coggin Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom

As the House Committee on Natural Resources is gearing up for hearings on the recently expired Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the environmentalist Western Values Project has launched a six-figure ad campaign targeting Rep. [crscore]Rob Bishop[/crscore] (R-Utah) and other Republicans on the committee for the apparent crime of wanting to reform the law. But the status quo, in which money is spent gobbling up land for the federal government, is far worse for conservation.

The LWCF was passed in 1965 and is set up so that revenue raised from federal energy leases is spent two ways: Acquiring land for the federal government, and giving grants to states for local recreation projects. Originally, 60 percent of the money was earmarked for states.

Over time, that shifted. Today’s dispute can be traced to a decision a few decades ago. In the 1970s, the LWCF was changed to allow a greater share of revenues to be spent on land acquisition. At the time, there was a backlog of lands that the federal government wanted to buy. That meant the amount of money to states dropped precipitously, while the amount of money to acquire lands increased — 61 percent of all LWCF expenditures have gone to land acquisition.

Now the problem is that the federal government can’t take proper care of the land it owns—which right now stands at a hefty 28 percent of the country. The National Park Service has over $11 billion in estimated deferred maintenance, while the Forest Service has over $300 million in backlogged trail repairs.

For the feds to continue to acquire more land when it can’t manage the land it already owns makes no sense. So why are environmentalists so steadfast in keeping the status quo?

Simple. More land under federal control means it’s easier to keep that land from being used for any kind of development environmentalists don’t like — particularly oil and gas — than if states or private parties controlled it. It’s the same reason green groups vehemently oppose transferring management of some federal lands to states. The irony, of course, is that the LWCF derives revenue from taxing offshore oil and gas production to provide funding for conservation.

Environmentalists are playing tricks with their campaign against LWCF reform. For example, the Western Values Project is not a nonprofit that works on conservation — it doesn’t appear in the IRS’s database of charities at all. Instead, it is a project backed by the D.C.-based New Venture Fund, an organization that runs over 100 similar “projects” and obscures who exactly is funding them. While New Venture Fund has received tens of millions of dollars from environmentalist foundations and other progressives, it’s unclear who exactly is funding the six-figure ad buy to attack Rep. Bishop.

Another nattering voice opposing LWCF reform is Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Given its name, you’d think it represents a large swath of sportsmen who, for some reason, want to see the federal government expand its real estate holdings. But tax records show that Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is just a front group for the green movement, getting the majority of its money from a handful of environmentalist sources. Another group in favor of keeping the status quo, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, gets most of its money from environmentalists and Big Labor.

Mainstream hunting groups are in fact pushing for a slight change to LWCF: the Making Public Lands Public initiative. The Making Public Lands Public Access Act (S. 390), introduced in February, would earmark 1.5 percent or $10 million of the LWCF to enhancing public access for hunters and anglers on federal lands. With the backlog of work needed to improve federal lands, the bill is a logical step forward.

Everybody seems to agree that the LWCF is, by and large, a sound idea that has accomplished a lot of good. Rep. Bishop and his allies want to ensure more money is going to states, while environmentalists want to make sure money is splurged on simply buying land. One idea promotes responsible conservation, the other doesn’t.