June 1, 2015, Department, by National Recreation and Park Association

Rep. Raul Grijalva is the U.S. Congressional Representative for Arizona’s 3rd district.We hope the articles you read in Parks & Recreation are thought-provoking and engaging, and we want to hear your opinions on what you read in these pages. Through social media posts, website comments, emails to staff or posts on NRPA Connect, let us know how the magazine’s articles apply to your job and your agency.


[Ed. Note: In our May issue, Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), of the House Natural Resources Committee, penned an article titled, “The Case for LWCF Reform.” In response, the committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), has provided the letter found below. Both messages have been lightly edited for grammar and punctuation, but are otherwise published as submitted by the members of Congress.

As we approach LWCF’s scheduled expiration on September 30th, the debate on the reauthorization and possible reform of the law is intensifying. NRPA’s position on the reauthorization of the LWCF is clear in our unwavering support for a permanent and fully funded LWCF with no less than 40 percent guaranteed funding for the State Assistance Program. To learn more about the LWCF State Assistance Program, and how to get involved in the reauthorization effort.] 

Readers of the May issue of Parks & Recreation magazine were likely surprised to read, in an op-ed by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), that the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) allegedly played a role in the death of a Colorado woman hiking in Utah in 2008. The Editor’s Note preceding this remarkable essay failed to provide context for Chairman Bishop’s LWCF “reform” plans and appeared to endorse his call for the sale or outright giveaway of our public lands. Parks & Recreation readers deserve the full story.

The death of Rosalie Backhaus in 2008 while hiking in Utah was a tragedy, but it had nothing to do with the LWCF. To suggest otherwise is wrong. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 is based on a simple idea: If we are going to allow Big Oil to reap massive profits from drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), which contains energy resources owned by all Americans, then a small percentage of those profits should be set aside for conserving open space and recreational opportunities on shore. 

Fifty years later, the program has been a whopping success. More than $36 billion has accrued to the fund, millions of acres have been conserved, projects have been funded in every state in the Union, and the companies drilling in the OCS have become some of the most profitable multinational conglomerates in human history.  

Over the same five decades, states with large amounts of public land have developed robust tourism and recreation economies, with job and economic opportunities and a quality of life attractive enough to make them among the fastest growing communities in the country.

So why does Chairman Bishop claim LWCF needs to be “reformed?” As is often the case in politics, there is the public answer and the real answer. In this instance, the public justifications just don’t hold water. 

The fact that the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have unmet maintenance needs is not a reason to raid the LWCF. The maintenance budgets of our federal land management agencies are funded through the annual budget and appropriations process. Sequestration, government shut-downs, borrowing to fund the war in Iraq and other short-sighted budget decisions have left them broke. The solution is for Congress to reorder its spending priorities and adequately fund these agencies, not divert more funding from the LWCF. 

Chairman Bishop and his allies want to raid the college fund to pay for groceries. It’s not exactly the fiscally responsible position.

Attacking the LWCF on the grounds that states and localities do not collect taxes from public lands also fails. Congress created the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) Program to reimburse local governments for that lost revenue. Of course, funding for PILT is also subject to appropriation — recent spending levels have been inadequate but once again, the solution is for Congress to do its job, not raid LWCF. 

Although Chairman Bishop and some of his colleagues like to argue the federal government owns too much land, the number of acres under federal ownership in a given state is not really the figure that matters. When calculated on a per-capita basis, western states have some of the highest rates of non-federal land in the lower 48 due to lower population numbers. If public education in Utah or elsewhere is struggling, the presence of federal land is not the cause.

Chairman Bishop is correct in saying the LWCF has two parts — one for federal land conservation and acquisition, and another for state matching grants. However, he wrongly suggests that the LWCF needs to change because the federal side has usurped stateside matching-grant funds. In fact, the law that created the LWCF states that the federal program shall receive “not less than 40 percent” of the funding, meaning Congress already has the authority to allocate a majority of LWCF funding to the state-side program if it chooses to do so. 

Given the weakness of Chairman Bishop’s claims, one must ask: what is really going on here? This attack on LWCF is part of a larger campaign to hand over our federal public lands to profiteering. Much federal land is owned by Uncle Sam because the government couldn’t give it away in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but things have changed. Oil and gas companies, mining conglomerates, timber companies, real-estate developers, and large-scale agribusinesses would love to get their hands on open space in the west. Some in Congress want to help them.

Chairman Bishop recently formed a Federal Land Action Group to study legislation to sell or give away federal lands to the highest bidder. He launched this assault on LWCF because it is a powerful tool for land conservation. Pointing to unrelated issues, and even claiming the LWCF led to a woman’s death, conceal his true goal: Helping for-profit companies profit more from resources that belong to the American people. 

Rather than trying to weaken or destroy the LWCF, Congress should renew and strengthen the program. We face more habitat fragmentation, greater urban sprawl and more advanced climate change than ever before. Of the $36 billion that has flowed into the fund, less than half has actually been appropriated for the purposes identified in the 1965 Act. It is time to double down on the promise of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, not fold so developers can cash out.

NRPA’s mission statement is: “To advance parks, recreation and environmental conservation efforts that enhance the quality of life for all people.” The aims of those seeking to undermine the Land and Water Conservation Fund and seize and sell our public lands could not be more at odds with that mission.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ)is the U.S. Congressional Representative for Arizona’s 3rd district. He has served in that post since 2003.