For the last 50 years, Washington’s outdoor recreation and environmental conservation efforts have been bolstered by millions of dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps the entire country maintain and improve access to state and federal parks across the nation.
In fact, since the fund was created by former Washington Sen. Henry Jackson in 1964, Washington has received more than $659 million that went to parks as large as Mount Rainier National Park to as small as Gasworks Park in Seattle.
But because the fund was not renewed by Congress on Sept. 30, Washington, along with the other 49 states, will no longer receive the money.
“Expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is outrageous,” said Vlad Gutman, senior policy director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition in a press release. The Wildlife and Recreation Coalition is a non-profit group of 280 organizations that promote public funding for Washington parks. “It is a profound disappointment that a small, radical minority in Congress eliminated a bipartisan program supported by more than 85 percent of the American people. We need Congress to quickly correct this and permanently reauthorize LWCF to preserve our economy, quality of life, and outdoor heritage.”
The LWCF coffer is filled with royalty money from federal oil and gas leases across the country instead of taxpayer money.
The fund is capped at $900 million every year, but much of that money is often diverted to other projects, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition. In 2013, the Department of the Interior collected almost $90 billion from offshore energy production royalties, but the LWCF only received $305 million.
Only twice has the LWCF been fully funded in its 50 year history; once in 1998 and again in 2011, even though royalty money generated from offshore energy production far exceeds the $900 million cap, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.
What sort of projects does the LWCF help fund? A more accurate question would be, what projects doesn’t it help fund?
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund has multiple funding vehicles, because it’s this great toolbox that supports many uses within Washington and across the country,” Gutman said during a phone interview. “A piece of that supports state and local parks. Another part is protecting forestry jobs through the Forest Legacy Program. There are other portions that support habitat and wild land acquisitions within Washington and helps the state protect these habitats and wetlands and opens them up to public access.”
It seems the only thing LWCF funds don’t support is staffing parks and trails, which means parks and trails will stay open for the foreseeable future, even without the funds.
“LWCF is about investing in new places, or improvements to existing places,” Gutman said. “It doesn’t form a part of how existing parks run. It’s about making sure we continue investing in this economic engine in the future.”
Although LWCF funds fuel environmental projects all across the country, Gutman said Washington will disproportionately feel the effects of no longer receiving that money.
According to Gutman, Washington is one of the most competitive states for LWCF funds, despite the state’s small population size, which is partly how the funds money is split across the country.
Washington is competitive, Gutman said, because outdoor recreation is arguably one of Washington’s largest industries.
“LWCF forms a foundation of an outdoor recreation economy that is, by some measures, the largest industry in the state of Washington. Outdoor recreation sports 198,000 jobs, and much of them depend on access to public lands that LWCF has made possible,” said Gutman. “Consumers in Washington spend $21.6 billion every year on outdoor recreation, much of which happens on these federal and state lands that LWCF supports. Out-of-state visitors have a total economic impact of nearly $5 billion dollars as well. This major economic engine is at risk now because we’ve lost the vehicle that makes this possible. That’s the real long-term impact.”
The state will also feel some short term impacts as large projects in the Olympic National Park, the Pacific Crest Trail and around Mount Saint Helens now find themselves without LWCF funds, Gutman said. These projects would cost approximately $27.3 million all together.
Maintaining Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier has received money from the fund in the recent past, but is not on the current list of projects LWCF funds.
In total, Mount Rainier National Park has received more than $8.5 million between 2005 and 2013.
Some of that money went to improving the Carbon River Road inside the national park.
“The Carbon River Road, up until LWCF was able to address this issue in the mid-2000s, was frequently being washed out through flooding,” Gutman said. “Every time it washed out, it would cost the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore. It would take a while to restore it, and major parts if the park were closed off to access. This happened on a number of occasions.”
With the help of LWFC money, Mount Rainier National Park was able to purchase privately-owned land inside of the national park and rebuild the Carbon River Road on higher ground so it would no longer wash out.
“The LWCF is a two-for-one in that way, because it both opens up national heritage and actually reduces tax burden on the public,” said Gutman.
Reauthorizing the LWCF
According to the Washington Post, the Senate has garnered enough bi-partisan support to temporarily reauthorize the LWFC, but the House of Representatives and the Natural Resources Committee controls the fund, that is holding back.
Currently, the LWCF will not leave the Natural Resources Committee for at least another month, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), the chairman of the committee, told the Desert Sun, as he plans to introduce his reform bill in November.
While some representatives are interested in reauthorizing the fund as-is, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and others introduced legislation that would permanently reauthorize the LWCF and provide to it the full $900 million last August.
However, other representatives are uninterested in reauthorizing the bill as it currently stands and have asked for changes to limit the government’s ability to use LWCF money, according to the Washington Post.