What is the Land and Water Conservation Fund?

Have you been to a park recently? Launched a boat? Walked your dog on a nearby trail? If so, there’s a good chance that you benefitted from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is a royalty paid by energy companies that extract offshore oil and gas. The simple idea behind the LWCF is to use money from extraction to fund recreational outdoor opportunities around the country.

Every county in the country has had a project that’s benefitted from the LWCF. These projects can be anything from constructing baseball fields to improving national park facilities. Because of this, an extremely wide-ranging demographic benefits from the LWFC. Hunters and soccer moms, hikers and fishermen, picnickers and birdwatchers all have a stake in the projects receiving funding from the LWCF.

History and reception

The LWCF started in 1964 as a bipartisan agreement that natural places, recreational opportunities, and areas of cultural significance should be protected for the enjoyment of the people. Even better for the American taxpayer, the funds to provide these inarguable benefits would not come from them, but rather from energy companies drilling for oil and gas.

The concept was simple: use money earned by depleting one resource (oil) to preserve another (recreational areas of land and water). Over the years, the success of the LWCF has been obvious, with over 40,000 projects completed (again, with at least one project in every county in the country). Not only does the fund provide the intrinsic benefits of recreational opportunities for families, adventurers, and hobbyists, but also contributes indirectly to the small economies that rely on outdoor recreation to survive.

When people are given the chance to utilize the outdoors, they gladly travel to small, out-of-the way towns and pay for lodging, food, and other activities, pumping money into the local economy: a win-win for the users and the surrounding communities.

A sign at the Old Erie Canal State Park showing that it was funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Overall, and against the grain of most programs, the LWCF has enjoyed bipartisan support through much of its existence. Well over three-quarters of people polled in 2013 supported funding the LWCF, and it’s easy to understand why. Even setting aside the obvious fact that, despite their differences, most people enjoy having fun outside, one can see an argument for the LWCF from both the average liberal or conservative viewpoint.

A conservative may enjoy the fact that oil drilling, something that frequently receives backlash from the other side, is being somewhat supported in this case. On the other hand, a liberal who may not wholly agree with offshore drilling likes the idea that if it must be done, it can at least provide benefit elsewhere.

On September 30, 2018, the legal authorization of the LWCF expired. At this point, it wasn’t clear if the program would continue to operate and provide funds to the natural areas it was created to protect. The timing was inopportune, as shortly after the expiration, the government fell into what ended up being the longest government shutdown in US history.

Funding

The LWCF is authorized to be funded up to $900 million per year. When it expired in September of 2018, it had only been fully funded a single time over the history of the program. What does this mean?

Essentially, the fund was legally allowed to receive up to $900 million in royalties each year from offshore drilling, but if Congress chose to distribute the money elsewhere, it wouldn’t receive its full funding. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the $900 million was not produced by the energy companies. It means it was produced, but Congress decided to allocate it elsewhere, outside the LWCF programs.

Fortunately, two major bills since the expiration of the LWCF have turned things around. On March 12, 2019, President Trump signed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (that’s the son of John Dingell, Sr., who was half of the Dingell-Johnson duo) into law. This bill permanently reauthorized the LWCF, meaning it could not expire again, the way it did in September of 2018.

Then, in August of 2020, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), widely considered one of the biggest pieces of conservation legislation in a generation. This bill, among other things, guaranteed full and permanent funding of the LWCF. This means that in addition to being funded in perpetuity, the LWCF will also be fully funded each year. The government can no longer distribute LWCF funds to other projects. All $900 million will now go to the outdoor recreation projects it was designed for.

A sign at Widewater State Park showing that it was funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Benefits today

The LWCF can be seen all across the country. As mentioned, every county in the U.S. has benefitted from projects directly funded by the LWCF. You’ll often see signs on trails or park entrances that mention their funding came from the LWCF. Just today, we took our dog on a walk in our local Golden Gate Canyon State Park. The trail we were on had LWCF signs, which we assumed probably provided the numerous bridges that we used to cross the creek paralleling our route.

The LWCF Coalition is a great website to visit to learn more about the LWCF. They also have an interactive map that shows the various projects across the country. Simply find your county and see the parks, trails, ball fields, and other outdoor facilities near you that exist because of the fund. There’s a bass and bluegill pond about five minutes from my house that proudly displays its LWCF badge, and odds are there’s one near you, too.

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