The Land and Water Conservation Fund Turns 50

November 1, 2014, Department, by David Tyahla

As LWCF turns 50 years old, NRPA's senior government affairs manager takes a look back at its highlights and outlines parameters necessary for its continued success.This fall, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) marks its 50th anniversary. It was in 1964 that, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, the House and Senate passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.

However, with the LWCF scheduled to expire in September 2015, what will the next year have in store? Will it provide us reason to celebrate a bright future and continued lasting legacy? Or, will the LWCF look more like a program in midlife crisis? 

First, let’s reflect on just how forward-thinking and successful this landmark policy has been. While we may lament the good old days of strong bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, the political process that produced the LWCF was decades ahead of its time. For instance:

At the time, Congress felt providing funding to preserve, develop and ensure recreational opportunities was essential for the “health and vitality” of existing and future generations of Americans, a need that is more relevant now than ever.  

In another forward-thinking move, the LWCF was created to be budget-neutral, having been authorized with a dedicated funding source of outer continental shelf (OCS) offshore oil and gas leasing revenues for almost five decades. Therefore, the LWCF includes its own means of being paid for — and always at no cost to the American taxpayer.  

The LWCF was viewed as a way to balance the environmental impacts associated with resource extraction by ensuring that new parks and open spaces are accessible to all Americans. 

The LWCF also intended to strike a balance between the acquisition of lands for federal parks and providing resources to the states to meet the nation’s growing need for access to close-to-home outdoor recreation. Who would have thought that Congress could foresee, five decades later, an America where four out of five citizens would be living in predominantly metropolitan areas?  

The LWCF State Assistance Program was established to provide matching grants to state, local and tribal governments to create and expand parks, develop recreation facilities and further community recreation planning. Ranging from active recreation facilities to natural areas, these funds are a vitally important tool to renovate existing sites, develop new facilities and acquire land for state and local parks.

States and localities are required to match these federal funds dollar for dollar. Today, the idea of requiring federal grant funds to be leveraged with other public or private dollars is pretty much a given. It wasn’t in 1964. 

Finally, land used for LWCF State Assistance projects must remain in recreational use in perpetuity. This ensures that the federal, state and community investments remain available for future generations of Americans.    

Since 1965, the LWCF State Assistance Program has:

Provided more than $4 billion to states, territories and local communities

Funded more than 42,000 community and state projects in every corner of America

Supported the permanent protection of 3 million acres of recreation lands and more than 29,000 recreation projects.

Each of these initiatives was driven by community priorities and matched with local dollars, providing close-to-home recreation opportunities that are readily accessible to all Americans.

This leveraged investment in state and local park and recreation projects also stimulates active outdoor recreation, which contributes $646 billion to the economy annually — supporting 6.1 million jobs, as well as generating almost $40 billion in federal tax revenue.

Further, the 725 million annual visits to America’s state park system — a recipient of LWCF State Assistance funding — contribute $20 billion to local and state economies.

While everything on the surface may look marvelous and sound so positive, the next year — LWCF’s 51st anniversary — will be critical to its continued success and future legacy. Consider that the State Assistance Program has been extremely successful the past five decades in spite of never enjoying the benefit of being funded at the approved amount.  

No less than $900 million should be deposited each year into the LWCF account from federal offshore oil and gas leasing revenues, and those funds should be permanently dedicated to this purpose. Yet, in fiscal year 2013, the Department of the Interior collected more than $9 billion from offshore energy production, and LWCF was funded at $306 million total in 2014. The State Assistance Program was funded at a paltry $40 million to cover all 50 states and the territories. This is barely one third of the amount deposited at the Treasury Department for this purpose. In fact, over the life of the program, more than $18 billion of LWCF’s funding has been diverted into general revenues for other, unintended purposes. 

Congress should ensure that at least $900 million, consistent with the underlying principle of the LWCF, is dedicated annually to longterm protection of our nation’s land and water resources with the State Assistance Program receiving an equal distribution of funding compared to our federal counterparts.  

The calls for Congress to act to secure a permanent reauthorization for LWCF before it expires in September 2015 have increased as the 50th anniversary has been celebrated. NRPA and our State Assistance Program partners, including the National Association of State Park Directors, National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers,  U.S. Conference of Mayors and National Governors Association, join hundreds of national conservation, wildlife and recreation organizations in supporting a permanently reauthorized and funded LWCF.  

When LWCF was enacted in 1964, the rising demand for outdoor recreation was recognized. Today, this demand is growing faster than we could have imagined. Now we must work together to set a conservation direction to meet our country’s needs for the next 50 years.

David Tyahla is NRPA’s Senior Government Affairs Manager.