Nate Schweber
Nate Schweber

Parks and regulation: 50-year-old US conservation fund ‘on life support’

Attacks by Republicans, standoff with Oregon ranchers menace fund that has saved national forests and local playgrounds

When armed men shut down the 107-year-old Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the sagebrush steppes of the northern Great Basin on Saturday, their anti-government anger put federal management of public lands in the West in the spotlight for the second time in a month. 

While the militia’s assault on the refuge was direct, a subtle and some say more insidious attack from Congress took place in December. Three months earlier, a committee in the House of Representatives allowed a popular national parks and recreation program to expire for the first time. Over the program’s 50 years of rebuilding community playgrounds and improving public access to wilderness areas, it provided more than $680,000 for Malheur.

Though the program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), was resurrected through a rider attached to an emergency spending bill, the fund’s backers say real damage was done. The program’s reauthorization was set for only three years, and it provided no lasting solution for the problem that supporters say has strangled it for years: chronic underfunding.

“To require the kind of fight it did to have it reauthorized, the precedent is this is a pretty bad state of affairs,” said Gary Werner, the executive director of the Partnership for the National Trails System. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund bought land for preservation and funded building public trails in California’s Death Valley National Park and the surrounding Mojave Desert.
Nate Schweber

The LWCF was founded in 1964, at a time when many Americans feared that the country had reached an environmental tipping point; too much land had been polluted and ruined, and people worried that children were becoming overweight and unhealthy for lack of places to play outside. And special interests were, in the words of Utah historian Bernard Devoto, subjecting public lands to “local vulnerability, local manipulation and local intimidation.” 

President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill establishing the LWCF so states could build community parks and so the federal government could buy private properties to patch up a tattered public landscape. In the late 1970s, the program was easily reauthorized, and its main source of funding was switched to revenue from offshore oil drilling — the idea being to balance the extraction of one resource with the preservation of others. The funding ceiling was set at $900 million, and Congress was generous throughout Jimmy Carter’s presidency. 

Funding started to drop during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and appropriations to the LWCF also fell with the rise of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a protest movement in Western states where residents railed against federal restrictions on mining, logging and cattle grazing. While LWCF appropriations twice spiked to capacity during the last years of Bill Clinton’s presidency — chunks of the money were used to buy 7,500 acres of a redwood forest in California to conserve water and 750 acres of a mining district in the mountains northeast of Yellowstone National Park — appropriations to the LWCF dropped back to middling levels during the presidency of George W. Bush and have remained there.

Of the more than $36 billion that could have been appropriated to the fund in its history, Congress has given it less than half, with the remainder vanishing into the Treasury Department’s general fund.

Since its creation, the program has invested federal revenue from oil and gas drilling into national parks, forests and wildlife refuges; historic sites like Underground Railroad stations and Civil War battlefields; and community parks and playgrounds. It has preserved views of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and built swing sets in Brooklyn in New York. It saved giant redwoods from chainsaws in California and planted bluegrass seeds in baseball diamonds in the Midwest. It protected ranges for trophy elk in New Mexico, built hiking trails above Los Angeles, preserved farmland in Pennsylvania to memorialize the crash of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, and raised tennis nets in Louisville, Kentucky; Washington, D.C.; and Maui County, Hawaii — to name just a few projects. Money from the LWCF has been spent on some 5 million acres of community parks and open spaces in 98 percent of counties in the U.S.

Northern shovelers in a wetland in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.
Bob Pool / Getty Images

Detractors, however, say LWCF money has bought up too much land in the West, including close to 1,300 acres of former ranchland bordering the Malheur refuge that the federal government bought and turned into a wildlife habitat open to the public. Malheur was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to protect overhunted populations of white herons and trumpeter swans, and ornithologists say its importance along western North America’s most significant bird migration route has only grown. Malheur provided birds with clean water when water at the nearby Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge turned warm and poisonous and killed thousands of birds.

Federal regulation of the use of such land is grounds for insurrection, said Ammon Bundy, a son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and one of the leaders of the Oregon militia. This isn’t the first such standoff. In 2014 another ad hoc militia working with Cliven Bundy trained rifles at federal employees after they rounded up the family’s cattle from a public range. For years Cliven Bundy has refused to pay fees for the use of that range, citing his belief that the federal government should not be allowed to control Western national parks, forests, grasslands and wildlife refugees.

“This refuge from its very inception has been a tool of tyranny,” Ammon Bundy told reporters in Oregon.

As defunding continues, the question now is the extent to which far-right members of Congress agree. 

Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn in New York City — one of more than a thousand parks in the state to have received LWCF money. In the 1970s and ’80s, nearly $350,000 was invested into the park.
Nate Schweber

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is one of Congress’ most outspoken critics of federal land management. As the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, he allowed the LWCF to expire. In a November 2015 press call, he described the way the LWCF purchased federal land in recent years as “so dumb.”

“Those of us in the West clearly understand what it’s like to have an absentee landlord,” he said. “I don’t want to exacerbate that particular issue.”

After he blocked what would have likely been a bipartisan reauthorization vote for the LWCF in the full Congress, he submitted a bill designed to radically change it. Among the things he wanted: to use the LWCF to pay for long-pending maintenance and upkeep on public lands, to send more LWCF money to states while drastically limiting how much money could be used to buy Western land by the federal government and to siphon a percentage of LWCF money back to the oil and gas industry. Bishop, who received $280,000 in campaign donations from oil companies, argued that reinvesting LWCF money in the industry would help ensure a revenue stream for years to come. 

“We have to start thinking differently,” he said. 

Yet recent studies have shown that public land purchases benefit both ecology and the economy. The Trust for Public Land calculated that each dollar used to buy federal land earns a quadruple return. The Federal Interagency Council on Recreation found that in 2012 visits to public lands contributed $51 billion to the economy and sustained 880,000 jobs. And since the 1980s, scientists have known the direct relationship between the size and continuity of a wild landscape and the percentage of its native wildlife able to survive.

There are stark ecological, economic and social costs of underfunding the LWCF. In the late 1990s a rancher who owned land in Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, decided to sell. The National Park Service wanted to buy it for the sake of visitor access and protection of rare creek habitat for the endangered yellow-billed cuckoo and southwestern willow flycatcher. But after no LWCF money came through, much of the ranch was subdivided, developed and sold off. When a harmful, nonnative invasive plant called tamarisk took root in the area, some of the new homeowners refused to grant park service employees permission onto their property to remove it, according to Scott Stonum, the chief of science and resource management for the park. The tamarisk is now a constant drain on the budget, and the current price for parcels of the subdivided land is cumulatively far higher than the intact original. 

“When we have a willing seller and we don’t have the funds to purchase the property, that really is unfortunate,” he said. 

For decades, thousands of Yellowstone bison like these have been killed for migrating onto land outside the park, where they are unwanted by Montana’s politically powerful cattle industry.
Nate Schweber

In 2008 a Montana cattle rancher just northwest of Yellowstone National Park offered to sell to the Forest Service several hundred acres along the Yellowstone River that were crucial habitat for migrating bison. The Yellowstone animals are descendants of the few wild bison in America to escape the mass slaughter of tens of millions of them at the end of the 1800s, which starved Plains Indian tribes onto reservations. For decades, thousands of Yellowstone bison were shipped to slaughterhouses while environmentalists and the cattle industry clashed over where outside the park they could be tolerated. Parties on both sides agreed this piece of land could help ease the conflict.

But when money from the LWCF never came, the rancher sold to a billionaire businessman instead, and the bison slaughter went on, at a cost of about $2 million a year to the National Park Service per an agreement forged with state and cattle industry representatives as a way to control their population.

“We’re talking about America’s heritage. It shouldn’t be a political football,” said Charles Money, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, which has raised more than $3 million to buy and preserve 40 of the last private acres in Rocky Mountain National Park. He hopes the remainder will come from the LWCF

Stevens Pass, close to where the trail crosses private land that conservationists hope will be purchased and kept open in perpetuity with LWCF help.
Nate Schweber

Atop snow-covered and Douglas-fir-studded Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle, three-quarters of a mile of the epic Pacific Crest Trail crosses a corner of private land in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. For decades, the landowner allowed both thousands of local hikers and hundreds of adventurers trekking from Mexico to Canada to cross his property along the trail because no feasible alternate route exists on the rugged mountaintop. But when the landowner passed away, his heirs put the land up for sale. For years the estate negotiated with a conservation group, the Pacific Crest Trail Association. The association hoped to partner with the LWCF to buy the property, preserve the land and keep connected the trail that was recently celebrated by author Cheryl Strayed in her best-selling memoir, “Wild,” and the movie of the same title, starring Reese Witherspoon.

But when LWCF money never materialized, the estate explored another option: subdividing the land and selling it piecemeal for multiple private homes. This would mean that all it would take to cut the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail would be for one new homeowner to put up a sign that reads “No trespassing.”

“We came to an agreement with the [association] just as the LWCF expired,” Gary Jones, the trustee for the estate selling the land, wrote in a letter. Should the deal fall through, he continued, “we will have no choice but to agree with the demands of growth and simply sell 16 20-acre lots individually.”

Across the nation and particularly in the West, hundreds of other projects could benefit from LWCF money — in Idaho, where a timber company has pressured the Forest Service to swap thousands of logged acres in exchange for unlogged acres; in Montana and Nevada, where some of each state’s biggest herds of elk and mule deer, respectively, are kept largely off-limits to hunters because they live on mountain ranges encircled by private ranches that no public trails or roads cross; and in the Dakotas, where more than a thousand farmers have asked to enroll in a program with the Fish and Wildlife Service in which they could be paid in part by LWCF dollars in exchange for protecting vital habitat for birds

“We have a huge backlog of landowners who want to get into the program. The limitation is the money,” said Eric Lindstrom, a government affairs representative for the conservation group Ducks Unlimited. 

In 2015, as visits to public lands across the country soared to new highs, the Department of the Interior compiled a list of $900 million worth of crucial properties bordering public lands. But when Congress reauthorized the LWCF in December, it appropriated $450 million — half of what it could have. Supporters cheered anyway, because for most of the last decade, appropriation were only about a third of the maximum. Still, on a practical level, the 2016 appropriation means that most of the projects the Department of the Interior deemed urgent will not get done.

“It’s hard to be too excited about putting LWCF on life support,” said John Gale, who lives in Colorado and is the conservation director for the group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s indicative of kick-the-can-down-the-road form of governing.”

Swiftcurrent Falls in Glacier National Park in Montana. Logging, oil drilling and vacation home construction threaten the pristine region. More than 300,000 acres of land have been bought and protected there with help from the LWCF.
Nate Schweber

As struggles over funding have intensified, they have intersected with broader political questions about land rights. Attacks like the armed takeover of the Malheur Refuge and the congressional fight over the LWCF have fractured the Republican Party

David Jenkins, the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, based in Virginia, compared Bishop to the Bundys and said, “I would argue that [Bishop is] doing a very unconservative thing — taking something that we’re hoping to protect and pass on to our grandchildren and future generations and give it to special interests so they can make a quick buck. What kind of values are that?”

To counter Bishop, several Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate submitted bills to restore the LWCF. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., included in hers a provision to mandate Congress’ appropriation at the $900 million annual maximum, with no provisions to pour money into the oil and gas industry, while restricting federal land acquisitions.

She compromised with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Their version of the LWCF eschewed the mandatory funding requirement but extended the fund in perpetuity. Murkowski also agreed to start a separate fund for the maintenance backlog on federal lands.

Analysts say that because of that bipartisan agreement, their version of the LWCF has the best shot at eventual approval by Congress. The questions LWCF supporters are left with are whether a poorly functioning Congress can muster the will to pass it before the extension expires and what will become of Bishop’s ideas.

Malachi Stewart, 4, runs to his mother on a December afternoon at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY. He uses the playground almost every day, said his mother. “When you grow up and have your own kids,” she said, “you see what it’s worth.”
Nate Schweber

“It isn’t assured what will come next,” said Alan Rowsome, a co-chairman of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition. “But everyone who is committed to this program — local communities, hunting sportsmen, the outdoor recreation retailers, the conservation community — they’re not going to rest until this fund is taken care of for all time.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates in Berry Park in Brooklyn, where Jayson Roman, 14, throws basketballs through hoops from which his father, Manny Roman, hung nets about the time the park was refurbished with money from the LWCF. “It’s sad,” Jayson said of the LWCF’s perennial budget woes. “It should just have a budget, no games.”

Tom Trembath, 56, of Whidby Island, Washington, agreed. At Stevens Pass he joined hikers of all backgrounds and ages passing through the private stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail before continuing alone up to sparkling alpine lakes where he has seen elusive pine martens.  

“That piece of trail is the access to wilderness,” he said. “And without it, fewer folks will see the wilderness we are always talking about protecting.”

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