With a little more than two months until the expiration of a little-known federal grant program, national and local advocates are sounding the alarm about the need to preserve the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“I’m a big fan of outdoor recreation, whether it’s hunting, fishing, hiking,” Sen. Maria Cantwell said in an interview. “LWCF is a good component to that, because it allows communities to preserve what they believe are the best strategies for that kind of open space and recreation. So yes, we want to get it reauthorized.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund takes money from offshore drilling fees and puts it toward the acquisition of lands to be protected as parks or natural areas. On the local level, it also funds development of things like playgrounds and sports fields.
Cantwell has sponsored a bill to permanently fund LWCF at the $900 million level set when the program was created in 1965, though its actual funding has seldom met that mark. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, it will expire on Sept. 30.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fund have benefited local projects in recent years.
A $250,000 grant from LWCF helped Chehalis pay for a renovation at the Gail and Carolyn Shaw Aquatic Center, which opened to the public in 2014. Chehalis has also applied for LWCF funds to help pay for work at Recreation Park and Centralia is currently asking for money for its Fort Borst Park playground renovation.
“Support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund is an important tool for small communities like ours to achieve park improvement goals,” Chehalis recreation manager Lilly Wall said in an email. “These projects would most likely not happen without this type of support.”
The Fund has been active in Lewis County since nearly its inception. In 1966, it helped pay for the acquisition of Mayfield Lake Park. More recently, a $662,000 LWCF grant helped Mossyrock acquire Klickitat Prairie Park — the city’s first-ever park — in 2011.
A report compiled in 2015 by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition lists several other Lewis County projects assisted by LWCF. They include Cowlitz River access, projects at Ike Kinswa State Park and Mineral Lake, as well as the Winston Creek Campground.
LWCF has been a big player at the federal level as well. In 2010, the program was used to expand the northwest boundary of Mount Rainier National Park, obtaining a stretch of Carbon River Road that had frequently been washed out and improving access to the park. It has also helped fund efforts to preserve more than 20,000 acres of private forestland at the base of Mount St. Helens, keeping much of it as a working forest for timber production, while protecting valuable habitat from development.
Along the Pacific Crest Trail, the Fund has put more than $15 million toward purchasing properties that are now preserved public lands — much of that in Washington. That includes 64 separate acquisitions over the last 16 years, totaling 21,000 acres.
According to the LWCF Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for the fund, it has put more than $675 million toward projects in Washington since it was enacted.
Still, LWCF is not without its detractors. Despite majority support in both houses of Congress, it has been stalled in part due to opposition from House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop. Bishop believes the program has skewed too heavily toward federal acquisitions over state and local programs, which he used to justify allowing it to expire in 2015. A three-year extension was passed later that year.
Like Bishop, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has expressed concerns over some of LWCF’s projects, though spokeswoman Angeline Riesterer called her a “champion” of the program. Herrera Beutler supports funding the program at its current level of $425 million, and pointed to the Mount St. Helens project as a good example of its positive work.
However, she noted that one proposal would have used LWCF to help flood a wildlife refuge in Pacific County, despite the objections of locals, and another would have placed developable Skamania County land into the Forest Service’s hands, taking it off the county tax rolls.
“The government shouldn’t be funding land acquisitions or efforts that aren’t supported by local citizens, and, when appropriate, Jaime has worked to make sure federal bureaucrats are being held accountable to local communities when pursuing such efforts,” Riesterer said in a statement provided to The Chronicle.
The League of Conservation Voters has targeted Herrera Beutler for an Appropriations Committee vote that it says would have cut $65 million from LWCF. Riesterer called the ads “campaign-year antics.”
Meanwhile, the program’s status is still uncertain on Capitol Hill.
“It’s always difficult when you have a few key folks in your way,” said Amy Lindholm, who coordinates the LWCF Coalition. “The votes are there, and nobody has let it come up for votes.”
Cantwell said much of the fault for the program’s uncertainty lies with the House of Representatives.
“We want our House colleagues to be as serious about it as the Senate is,” she said. “That’s the challenge that we face. … We’re going to have to figure out how to get our House colleagues to be as committed.”
After mentioning the opposition from Bishop as a significant obstacle, Cantwell said she wasn’t sure if LWCF will move through Congress before it expires, noting efforts to include it in a larger package had stalled.
“We had hoped that we would be able to get some sort of agreement and move it before the September deadline,” she said. “I don’t know if that — hopefully we’ll be able to do that. ... (House members) haven’t been able to to give the time and attention to energy and natural resources issues that we would like; we’re going to have to figure out a new strategy for just LWCF.”