Pigs at the Trough

LWCF has deteriorated into one of too many narrow, special-interest entitlements

By Dave Skinner

Seems these days you can’t open the paper without reading slobbering praise for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF. Why now?

Well, it turns out LWCF, first passed in 1964, hit its second 25-year expiration date in 2014. In the defense bill logrolling last year, Congress extended LWCF for one year. Now Congress is debating whether to extend LWCF forever, reform it, or kill it.

LWCF was initially funded mainly by a tax on boat fuel. But like most “free stuff from the government,” funding requests vastly outstripped available cash, so in the Year of the Yippies (1968), Congress earmarked some offshore oil royalties. The LWCF program would take proceeds from oil, a non-renewable resource, to put together a lasting rural and urban outdoor recreation infrastructure.

Under the expired law, LWCF was capped at a maximum of $900 million per year, which Congress then had to authorize each year. About half the funding was “cost-share” matching fund partnerships with state and local governments. The other half was targeted for federal fee acquisition, or outright federal purchase of private lands.

Great idea? Yes, one that has run its course. LWCF has deteriorated into one of too many narrow, special-interest entitlements, all defended fang and claw by the entitled.

Before LCWF, if a “conservancy” wanted to “save” some land, they bought and managed it with hard-earned member donations. Their agenda, their money, their responsibility. However, land trusts also figured out that their members would never voluntarily donate enough money to “save” all the lands needing “saving.”

Along comes “other people’s money” in the form of LWCF. The book “Conservancy,” a history of land preservation, explains how, by Jimmy Carter’s term in the 1970’s, “mostly the national, state and larger regional trusts, regularly bought land deserving protection and counted on replenishing their bank accounts by reselling it to agencies that could draw on the LWCF.”

In short, land trusts were flipping before flipping was cool – LWCF enabled trusts to buy important (mainly to them) real estate and flip it to the Feds and other public entities, moving the cash to the next parcel for another flip.

Even better, the land trusts could loudly take the credit for saving land while handing off the responsibilities and expense of actual land stewardship onto the general public.

Naturally, LWCF is “popular” with the land trusts – it’s their special pet entitlement, a huge, concentrated benefit, just a fabulous windfall of which more is always better.

Trouble is, Congress has appropriated $900 million of “full funding” only twice during LWCF’s 50-year run, for good reason. Amidst all the “saving” and flipping, Congress also heard more and more about huge maintenance backlogs on public lands the Feds already control (forests, parks, refuges, grasslands). How huge? Try $25 billion give or take, and climbing along with that pesky $18 trillion national debt.

So some of the more logical Congresscritters are now questioning if LWCF is appropriate any longer. Might it make more sense to, after 50 years of buying and building, the Land and Water Conservation Fund be reformed to focus more on actual conservation? Have enough private lands been converted to federal lands in 50 years, twice what Congress originally envisioned?

Nope. Claiming an “accumulated backlog of deferred federal acquisition” of $30 billion, the so-called LCWF Coalition (led by The Nature Conservancy, a $6 billion “nonprofit” with $949 million in 2013 revenues and $309 million payroll) is lobbying hard for Congress to not only make LWCF a permanent program, but mandate “full funding” at $900 million each year – without any Congressional oversight.

If the large land trusts that dominate the preservation movement used their own money to support their agenda, that would be OK. But these trusts have gotten way too comfortable with others footing the bill, regardless of whether it is fiscally responsible to do so – just like every other pork-seeking special interest shamelessly pushing at the trough.

If Congress ever wants to get the Beltway pig rodeo under control, reforming or terminating LWCF’s gravy train would be a great first step.