Is federal control the best approach to conservation of land and water?

Raising the ire of some environmentalist groups and proponents of federal public lands acquisition, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rob Bishop (R-Utah), allowed funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LCWF) to expire at the end of September.

Enacted in 1965 by Congress, the LWCF provides a means for the federal government to buy off private lands and turn them into public recreation areas, parks, etc.  Purchased using royalties from offshore energy development, these federally acquired lands are primarily managed by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish & Wildlife, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

An article from October 28 in the Wall Street Journal indicates that since its creation, the LWCF has spent $20 billion to acquire some 7 million acres of private land and easements for 41,000 projects in 50 states.  Although it sounds like a viable program designed to benefit all Americans by preserving and ensuring access to recreational opportunities in open spaces, many argue that federal stewardship is not the best approach to conservation.

Congressman Rob Bishop made his case for allowing the LWCF to expire, with the goal of overhauling the program, in a Parks & Recreation publication from May.  Bishop recounts the story of a hiker who died on a trail managed by the BLM:

Sadly, this hiker lost her life simply because she picked the wrong fork in the trail. Why wasn’t there a simple sign – a clear direction showing which way to go and which to avoid? The locals had requested for years that the BLM put up a sign directing back to the trailhead, for this was not the first time a hiker had gone missing in this locality. BLM, however, insisted the expense was not worth it and would destroy the “wilderness” experience. A sign would have cost a couple thousand dollars but would have also saved the hiker from her death.

Congressman Bishop is not alone in the belief that federal management falls short in providing a quality experience and meeting conservation goals.  According to a November 12, 2015 analysis by the Heritage Foundation, eliminating the LWCF will do no further harm than is already done by poor federal management.  Citing a report by the Property and Environment Research Center and GAO data, Heritage claims:

Eliminating the LWCF will not create more environmental degradation; in fact, just the opposite. America’s largest land holder, the Department of the Interior, has a maintenance backlog of $13.5 billion to $20 billion for the land it already owns—a deficit leading to environmental degradation, soil erosion, gross amounts of littering, and land mismanagement. Conversely, according to a recent Property and Environment Research Council report, “On average, states generate more revenue per dollar spent than the federal government on a variety of land management activities, including timber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.”

On November 5, the House Natural Resources Committee issued a press release outlining suggested reforms to the LWCF.  According to the press release, funds going to create federal conservation strongholds have far outweighed the funds available to state and local entities for recreational areas and facilities.  The effort to update the law governing LWCF funding appears to be bipartisan.  A letter to Congress from Governor Tom Wolf (D) of Pennsylvania called for rebalancing funding toward states and to “renew the Act with a restored commitment to an equitable share for state grants.”

The graphic below, contained in the House Natural Resources press release, depicts LWCF spending following reforms.

The bipartisan sentiment behind reforming the Land and Water Conservation Fund is not surprising, given a growing number of instances of abuse and incompetence on the part of federal agencies. With the understanding that reforms do not mean neglect, or exposure of conservation lands to industrial development, but simply a bigger role for states in caring for those lands, the public may be more apt to get behind this idea.

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