When President Donald Trump rolled out his budget outline, he sent a troubling signal about the administration’s commitment to hunters, anglers and other public lands users. At issue is the future of access and conservation, two sides of a coin without which America’s rich outdoors traditions would perish.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the nation’s most popular and successful program for guaranteeing public access and conserving important landscapes. The LWCF is central to our ability to safeguard valuable lands and waters from irresponsible development, create new outdoor opportunities, and gain public access to water, wetlands, forests and valleys that currently may be inaccessible. The LWCF is funded annually by a small percentage of royalties paid by oil and gas companies; not a penny of our tax dollars goes into the fund.
This LWCF model works in two important ways. It uses offshore energy revenues — proceeds the government gets for selling an asset we all own — to buy key resources we all need to conserve and improve access to public lands. It also provides matching grants to states and local governments to enhance outdoor recreation. By facilitating willing-seller purchases and voluntary conservation easements that strategically secure lands critical to both conservation and access, the program is essential to creating and maintaining a nationwide legacy of high-quality recreation areas as well as stimulating non-federal investments in the protection and maintenance of natural resources.
How the new administration approaches these needs remains to be seen, but its 30,000-foot budget raises concerns. First, it asks Congress to significantly reduce natural resource spending; for example, spending at the Interior Department, which manages 500 million acres, would be slashed by 12 percent, with certain programs taking much bigger hits. More specifically, it suggests that funding for LWCF’s land acquisitions and conservation easements be essentially eliminated.
Innumerable successes have been achieved thanks to the LWCF. In western Montana, 8,200 acres of prime, accessible deer, elk, moose and trout habitat along Tenderfoot Creek were added to existing Lewis and Clark National Forest lands due to LWCF dollars. This investment conserves the integrity of an iconic Western landscape as undeveloped forest lands, grasslands and public space while at the same time providing world class opportunities to hunt big game and fish a main tributary of the famed Smith River. Along the Deschutes River in Oregon, LWCF funds helped secure the addition of 10,000-plus acres to the public estate, conserving critical steelhead habitat and unparalleled bighorn hunting grounds. The positive impacts of this acquisition will ripple across the state and the Northwest.
Yet our ability to write these and similar success stories is far from assured. The LWCF was allowed to briefly sunset in 2015; Congress reauthorized it but only for a period of three years. Furthermore, LWCF funding is subject to the whims of Congress and the influence of politics: Every year they can choose to spend those dollars on conservation and access — or divert them elsewhere while making hollow promises and issuing IOUs.
A solution to this problem is within our grasp. Recently introduced Senate legislation, with 22 co-sponsors and more to come, would fully fund and permanently reauthorize the LWCF. A bipartisan LWCF bill introduced in the House in January already has attracted dozens of cosponsors. But despite the broad support on Capitol Hill for LWCF and its positive impacts on our communities, local economies and public lands, some detractors suggest that we further divert LWCF funding at a time when all Americans, including sportsmen and women, most need it.
Public lands — and citizens’ ability to access them — are one of the great American equalizers. Most hunters and anglers rely on public lands for our time afield. Insufficient access is the No. 1 reason cited by sportsmen for forgoing days chasing critters, casting lines, spending time with our families and friends — and, incidentally, supporting our nation’s $646 billion annual outdoors-reliant economy.
Cuts to LWCF would make matters far worse, jeopardizing public access to trails, wildlife and waterways by taking away the dollars we need to build and support public lands infrastructure — and protect the missing puzzle pieces in some of America’s most critical and threatened landscapes. Stopping the diversion of these dollars and securing the fund’s future is necessary so that we can ensure access to public lands for all. Detailed spending plans coming soon from both the White House and Congress will provide the opportunity to do that.
Recently confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a committed sportsman who has consistently voiced his strong support for the LWCF and the vital access and conservation activities it supports. Here’s hoping his friends in Congress and the administration — including President Trump — are listening.
Land Tawney is the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
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