And that’s the way it’s been over the past 50 years for the LWCF: unheralded at the start, little-known by the general public, and almost always underfunded by Congress.
Yet the program has quietly but effectively gotten the job done, “preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility to all citizens” for outdoor recreation by putting billions of federal dollars into national parks, places of cultural and historic value, and local parks, playgrounds and playing fields. Add it all up and America has gotten more than 15 million acres of public land conserved in almost every single county in the country. For example:
- Where can you find some natural scenery in Metro Atlanta? Along the Chatahoochee River National Recreation Area, protected by the LWCF.
- Where can you learn about the battle to end school segregation? In Topeka, Kansas, at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, preserved by the LWCF.
- How has California managed to create or improve more than 1,000 parks since 1965? Yep: The LWCF.
- As recently as 2010, Environment America and the state environmental groups ran successful campaigns to put the Land and Water Conservation Fund to work expanding Mount Rainier National Park and forestalling development within Acadia National Park, among other places.
Americans were promised more
So what’s the problem? Why has Environment America had to run a campaign to save and fund the LWCF for the past two years?
For one thing, no matter how effective the LWCF has been, it’s hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in the U.S. Every year in America, new roads, houses, pipelines and other development replace natural areas that, if you put them all together, would be larger than the state of Rhode Island
For another, Americans were promised more. Much more.
The LWCF was supposed to serve as a trust fund, with the money raised primarily in the form of royalties paid by oil companies for offshore drilling leases -- up to $900 million per year -- and then held and spent on behalf of all Americans to ensure our access to outdoor recreation.
Except it hasn’t worked that way. Since 1965, Congress has fully funded the program just twice (in 1998 and 2001), diverting more than $22 billion for other purposes. To put that figure into perspective, as of 2019 the program had provided $18 billion for conservation projects. If Congress had upheld the original promise of the LWCF, the program could have preserved, protected, improved or created far more of America’s best places -- perhaps double the amount of land and water.
If undermining the program’s funding and failing to fulfill its promise wasn’t bad enough, Congress let the program expire in September 2018.
Working in coalition with The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and others, we sought to clean up this mess in two ways: by permanently reauthorizing the program and securing the full $900 million per year for it for … well, forever.
Strategy for success
To achieve these goals, Conservation Director Steve Blackledge and his team needed to: weave together the local and national elements of the Land and Water Conservation Fund success story; break out of the progressive v. conservative narrative that frames virtually all policies these days; and demonstrate strong grassroots support for the program “back home” — in the states and districts represented by the members of Congress whose backing would be decisive.
Here’s how we carried out this three-part strategy:
- In the fall of 2018, we called on then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who had been a strong LWCF supporter when he served in Congress, to help save the program. Staff and volunteers blanketed Washington, D.C., businesses and neighborhoods — including Secretary Zinke’s — with lawn signs urging him to stand up for LWCF.