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Commentary: Conservation groups urge lawmakers to reauthorize Land and Water Conservation Fund

GRAND FORKS — There was a welcome development on the conservation front Thursday, Sept. 13, with news that the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously passed a measure to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually.

This is a big deal for anyone who cares about public lands and outdoor recreation because the LWCF is set to sunset Sept. 30 unless Congress acts to reauthorize the fund. There's still work to be done, but the House committee's action looks to be a significant step to ensuring the conservation funding continues.

For background, the LWCF resulted from bipartisan legislation Congress passed in 1964 to dedicate a portion of the royalties from offshore oil and gas revenues to conservation, public lands and wildlife habitat projects across the country.

The thought was that funds generated from the depletion of one natural resource could be used to enhance other natural resources and outdoor recreation. All 50 states, along with the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, benefit from the fund.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the LWCF has provided nearly $4 billion to states for outdoor recreation and public access, funding more than 40,000 projects and protecting 2.3 million acres of federal forest lands.

Given such accomplishments, preserving the LWCF understandably is a priority for conservation groups, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, among others.

In North Dakota, the LWCF funded more than $35 million in projects from 1965 to 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, said Brock Wahl of Bismarck, a board member for the North Dakota Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The fund has benefited every county in the state except for Slope County, Wahl said, citing figures from the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, which handles LWCF funding requests.

Funded projects include everything from beaches to baseball fields, state parks, campgrounds and boating access, Wahl said.

"It's not just a public land or hunting thing," he said. "There have been just a really diverse set of projects that have seen benefits from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"The best way I can sum it up is it's really provided the foundation for all outdoor recreation of any type for North Dakota, whether you're talking Badlands or urban baseball fields."

Words of praise

Conservation groups were quick to praise Thursday's House committee action.

"It is unthinkable that Congress would let this program expire and (Thursday's) action by the House Natural Resources Committee was critical to make sure that it doesn't," Corey Fisher, public land policy director for Trout Unlimited, said in a statement.

This isn't the first time the LWCF has been under the gun, so to speak. A similar situation occurred in 2012, when the fund was set to expire June 30.

Then as now, conservation groups rallied on behalf of the fund. But according to Wahl, the issue goes beyond making sure the LWCF doesn't expire Sept. 30.

"Kind of the secondary thing people don't talk about as much is the permanent reauthorization of it so we don't have to keep going back to appropriations committees to get funding every year when it's already essentially been allocated," Wahl said. "It just seems many of the state representatives in the federal government keep wanting to slash this funding."

Congress has fully appropriated LWCF monies only once in the program's history, according to the Department of Interior. In the '70s, North Dakota received $2 million to $3 million annually, on average from the fund, Wahl said, but in the past decade, allocations have been more like $350,000 to $400,000 annually.

"We want to see it back at work like it was in the 1970s," he said.

Call to action

Now that permanent reauthorization of the LWCF has cleared one hurdle, conservation groups are redoubling their efforts to encourage hunters, anglers, birdwatchers and anyone else who cares about habitat and outdoor recreation to contact members of their congressional delegations to support reauthorizing the fund.

One of the easiest ways to do that can be found on the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers website at backcountryhunters.org and clicking the "Take Action" tab.

"Sportsmen are depending on Congress to act swiftly and see that the LWCF is permanently reauthorized with full, dedicated annual funding and that a comprehensive public lands maintenance backlog fund is established to benefit all of our land management agencies," Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP, said in a statement. "We hope this commendable move by the House Natural Resources Committee is the first step toward getting these priorities passed into law."

The LWCF really has been a landmark program throughout its 54-year history, Wahl says.

"It's such a small amount of funds compared to other things in the federal government that we don't understand why it is the one that keeps getting robbed," Wahl said. "Certainly, maybe there could be some efficiencies made to it and some changes made to it, but we just really want to make sure this fund is permanently reauthorized and fully funded for the rest of our lives."

• More info: doi.gov/lwcf.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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