Late in the day on Dec. 16, a 50-year-old conservation program survived to see another day (we hope). The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was passed and signed into law on Sept. 3, 1964. Since that date, over $3.6 billion in LWCF grant funds have been matched by $3.6 billion in local and state funds to acquire more than 2.6 million acres of parkland and assist with the development of close to 30,000 recreational facilities throughout the country. It’s a project that has worked for over 50 years, but it was almost allowed to die. Its enabling legislation quietly expired in September, and it became a bit of a political football in the sausage factory we call Washington D.C.
Political ideologues who would try to use a cornerstone of successful conservation would do well to learn about the history of this program. The LWCF had its beginning in 1958 when environmental concerns focused on a bipartisan mandate and created the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC). The ORRRC report that followed after three years of research found there was a dire need for preservation of land for recreation. At the time, there weren’t many avenues for local communities to acquire land for recreational opportunities. The ORRRC report called for establishing a national program that would be long-lasting, able to assist local communities and provide land for recreational access.
There have been a few funding methods to pay for the LWCF. Universal since the beginning is the fact that it has not been funded through direct public taxes. Since 1968, the funding has been from fees paid by taking a portion of the funds collected from oil companies that lease offshore drilling rights on the Outer Continental Shelf. It makes perfect sense. If you are consuming a public resource, you should pay a fee that benefits the public by acquiring resources accessible to them. Since then, annual appropriations for LWCF have averaged about $100 million per year. Some years were more (a peak of $369 million in 1979) and some years were considerably less ($0 in 1982 and from 1996-1999).
So what happened this year? In a functioning Congress, when it’s time to renew a program that’s working, Congress votes to reauthorize the program. But as you might have heard, things aren’t necessarily working well in D.C. There were bipartisan proposals in both the house and senate for the renewal of LWCF, but they couldn’t even make it to the discussion table of the House Natural Resources Conservation Committee because the chairman of that Committee (Rep. Bob Bishop of Utah) wanted to push through his own legislation that would drastically change LWCF. Most alarming was the proposal to divert a large chunk of the funds back to oil companies to fund oil exploration. Luckily, that proposal never got through the committee.
Conservation groups like the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition were hoping for a permanent reauthorization for America’s longest lasting and most successful conservation program. There was a flurry of activity throughout November and early December. Locally, Rep. Darin LaHood, a newly appointed member of the House Natural Resources Conservation Committee, met with representatives from his district to hear their plea for LWCF renewal. “Thank You” Rep. LaHood for listening. In the recent omnibus bill that was banged through Congress, LWCF survives intact, but instead of a permanent reauthorization, it only gets a three-year extension. So conservation groups will have to be vigilant if we want to insure that a corporate raid is not in the works when it’s time to renew.
What does all of this mean to readers of this column? I guarantee that one way or another, you have benefitted from LWFC. The list of local park acquisitions reads like a weekend travel itinerary for anyone who has lived in or visited Peoria: Robinson Park, Singing Woods, Forest Park Nature Center, Jubilee College State Park, Peoria Riverfront Park, Mossville Soccer Complex, and the list goes on. All funded through LWCF. Since its inception in 1964, $3.2 million have come into Peoria County alone from LWCF. Even if you don’t use these parks and facilities, the mere fact that Peoria has the amount of open space available to residents helps stabilize our city, enhances property values and benefits our quality of life.