A major conservation program that Congress established more than 50 years ago is set to expire at the end of this month—and environmentalists don't seem to mind.
That’s because supporters of the Land and Water Conservation Fund are aiming for a bigger prize: permanent, mandatory funding.
Legal authorization for the LWCF, a program that helps federal authorities acquire land for parks and provides state grants for conservation projects, is barreling toward a lapse at the end of September, and that’s likely to disrupt movement on projects. But legislation to merely reauthorize the program, which surprisingly passed last week out of the notoriously partisan House Natural Resources Committee, is no longer enough for environmentalists and some lawmakers.
They want to remove LWCF funding from the appropriations process and instead mandate $900 million annually—the amount authorized in law, but hardly ever secured by lawmakers. And they’re willing to stomach a lapse in the program for that.
“It’s a step in the right direction with authorization, but a full deal that really takes care of LWCF is not just authorization,” said Jonathan Asher, a policy expert at The Wilderness Society. “We are girding for an expiration.”
Lawmakers typically appropriate roughly $350-450 million annually for the fund. A bill to bump that up to the full—and mandatory—$900 million is supported by nearly half the Senate, including lead sponsor Sen. Richard Burr and five other Republicans.
Burr and Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources panel, urged Senate leadership in an early August letter to permanently authorize the LWCF with mandatory funding. Sixteen Senators signed on in total. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican who isn’t yet on board the legislation, joined in.
A Senate Democratic aide echoed Asher’s position that the House bill doesn’t go far enough. “I don’t think that’s tenable in terms of what supporters want,” the aide said.
And Asher isn’t alone among conservationists in his focus on mandatory funding. Alex Taurel, conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters, echoed that priority. Meanwhile, Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told National Journal that he expects a lapse, at least until the post-election period.
Still, environmentalists and Capitol Hill allies are not only girding for expiration, they’re girding for a fight as conservative opponents plant flags in the ground over the program.
Rep. Paul Gosar volleyed several amendments at the LWCF reauthorization bill in committee. Gosar called the $900 million threshold “drunken sailor” spending, but failed to advance an amendment to cap the program at $425 million.
The Freedom Caucus member also unsuccessfully pushed an amendment to reserve 15 percent of LWCF funding for payments in lieu of taxes, which direct federal dollars to local governments to offset property-tax losses linked to nontaxable federal land.
Those amendments shed light on likely floor battles to come.
But environmentalists are still lauding action in the lower chamber. The House legislation—a product of negotiations between House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop and the top Democrat on the panel, Raul Grijalva—marks a détente that seemed beyond the pale just weeks ago.
Bishop and Grijalva have locked horns for years over the program, and Bishop has called for dramatic reform. The House legislation would require that 40 percent of LWCF funding goes to state projects and 3 percent to sportsmen activities, both priorities of Bishop.
The legislation also moved in tandem with an administration priority, as committee lawmakers signed off on a bill to funnel higher-than-anticipated energy revenue to the $16 billion maintenance backlog on National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service land. That legislation, on which Bishop is lead sponsor, now boasts nearly 170 cosponsors.
In large part because of recent discord on the House Natural Resources Committee, the upper chamber typically strikes compromise first on traditionally controversial environmental and energy policy. And now, key Senate leaders are signaling aims to tackle LWCF and related policy on that side of the Capitol.
Last week, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski criticized the House’s handling of a sprawling energy-and-lands package last Congress that would have permanently reauthorized the LWCF. That bill passed the Senate with 85 votes, but died in conference.
“I wish that they had moved on the LWCF package that we had advanced out about 18 months ago, so we wouldn’t be in this place. But I do think [the House bill] represents important progress,” she told reporters. “I think we can advance something. What it’s going to look like and how it’s gonna come together is uncertain at this point in time.”
Murkowski’s position on the fund is critical to its future, and she’s recently battled over reauthorization with Burr on the Senate floor. On Aug. 22, Murkowski “reluctantly” objected to Burr’s bid to push reauthorization legislation forward through unanimous consent. She argued that the fund should move alongside other priorities, like provisions to streamline natural-gas exports and boost U.S. development of critical minerals.
“With that energy bill, that LWCF piece was part of a negotiated package that did include other components. I think we would still like to see those other components moving through,” she said on the floor at the time. “This is an opportunity for us to act. It seems like we act best when there’s a little pressure from behind or with a timeline.”
Burr, meanwhile, is showcasing open bitterness about the process. Asked by National Journal this week whether the Senate is devising a plan on reauthorization, Burr responded, “They haven’t moved very much. I hope they’re going to move.” Burr also said he’d oppose a temporary reauthorization.
Now, rumblings of a markup next week at Murkowski’s committee are circulating. That could include LWCF reauthorization, legislation to fund the maintenance backlog in National Parks and a slew of potential other lands bill. A committee spokesperson, Nicole Daigle, said a markup is likely “in the near future.”
A host of big-ticket legislation in the coming days, primarily appropriations, could provide a vehicle for the LWCF. But the program’s chief proponents aren’t yet sold on congressional commitment.
“I think they’re just not even at the point of being able to get anything a real, fully thought-out solution across the finish line in the next week,” Asher said.