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Opinion: Restoring the Land and Water Conservation Fund

By: Chairman Rob Bishop

The Daily Caller

Politicians love creating new parks. It’s a cheap way (using someone else’s money) to increase name recognition and bona fides ahead of an election.

Unfortunately, maintaining our parks doesn’t have the same appeal. Why would a politician fix a leaky roof or repave a road when he or she could create a new park? I’ve never seen a federal candidate run for office on the campaign theme, “Vote for me, I fixed the park sewer system!”

Good stewardship isn’t flashy, but it’s essential if we are truly committed to our public lands. With the recent expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), we now have an opportunity to restore stewardship to our land management policies.   

In 1965, Congress created the LWCF. Using revenue from energy development from federal resources, the LWCF finances conservation and outdoor recreation programs. Its genius is that it generates revenue from one natural resource to conserve another.

The LWCF has played a vital role in creating recreational opportunities for Americans. That’s the main reason why the program should be reauthorized. However, Congress must also ensure the program is fulfilling its intended purpose.  

Under the original law, the largest share of LWCF funds was dedicated to a “stateside” program designed to help local communities fund recreation projects. Forty percent of the LWCF was to be allotted for “federal” purposes to purchase privately owned parcels of land inside existing federal boundaries.

Unfortunately, since 1965, the LWCF has drifted from its noble vision. Despite a ballooning deferred maintenance backlog, the LWCF has become overly focused on new land acquisition. At a time when states face unmet recreational needs of more than $18 billion, the “stateside” program has sunk to as low as 12 percent of total LWCF funding.

Today, federal lands, including national parks, are buckling under $20 billion in deferred maintenance projects. Yes, those pesky sewer systems, crumbling roads and bridges, and leaky roofs need to be fixed. This impacts visitor access, enjoyment, and safety on public lands. If we don’t pay to maintain our existing federal land infrastructure now, we’ll pay even more to replace it later.

In 1965, the National Park Service (NPS) administered 203 units on less than 30 million acres. Today, NPS manages 417 units and over 80 million acres. The units have doubled and acreage almost tripled since the creation of LWCF. Since 2005 alone, more than a dozen parks were added to the NPS, in addition to land acquisitions through LWCF.

Our nation’s public land philosophy is based on the twin pillars of conservation and access. We want to preserve and maintain natural resources, while at the same time ensure meaningful use and enjoyment of those lands. These twin principles prompted LWCF’s creation. These same principles should guide its reauthorization. Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva and I reached a bipartisan agreement on two pieces of legislation – H.R. 6510 and H.R. 502 – that, together, achieve this vision.

H.R. 6510, the Restore our Public Lands Act, provides dedicated investments to address the backlog of the National Park Service. H.R. 502 reforms and reauthorizes LWCF, ensuring stateside grants receive a minimum of 40 percent. It also ensures that no less than $20 million of total LWCF funds be used to improve access to existing federal lands for hunters, fishermen and other outdoor recreationalists. Both bills passed the House Committee on Natural Resources with bipartisan support in September.

Together, these reforms ensure recreational access for local communities is at the heart of the LWCF and reassert conservation and responsible use as our public land management priorities. Supporting both these bills will help us solve this problem.

Rob Bishop is the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.