Opinion

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Closing Range

Green Slush

Might it make sense to step back and perhaps tweak LWCF

Advocates of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) have flooded our letter and opinion pages all of a sudden. Coincidence? Nope – Congress is considering whether to extend, modify, or kill the program, and LWCF dependents want to keep their green slush flowing.

When created in 1964, the intent of LWCF (using one-time petroleum royalties to pay for needed and durable outdoor recreation infrastructure) made perfect sense. But it is a basic political truism that money from government programs inevitably spawns special interests that exist to capture that funding for their pet cause – not necessarily the public good. Therefore, Congress imposed an equally sensible 50-year sunset clause.

LWCF started off immensely popular (free government money always is) and was quickly modified so that Congress could appropriate up to $900 million a year, an immense amount of cash back then, and as one Senate staffer put it, “still a $$$$load of money” today.

Needless to say, a lot of people, especially those working for “nonprofit” land trusts, love that big pile of money, and want to keep it flowing – their way, of course.

However, over the years, one problem has really upset LCWF advocates. Over the 50 years LWCF has existed, Congress appropriated the authorized limit of $900 million only twice, with the last time being in 2009, when the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House.

Why was Congress so skimpy? Well, the constant buildup of our $18 trillion in outright national debt might be a factor. Perhaps the $50 to $200 trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities looming on our horizon has somebody’s attention?

Further, with federal land managers already facing at least $25 billion in “maintenance backlog” (the National Park Service share alone is $11 billion and counting) and some in Congress are thinking maybe buying even more land, causing even larger backlogs, isn’t so wise – even irresponsible.

Might it make sense to step back and perhaps tweak LWCF so the funding goes more toward actual conservation of assets already held? Might we consider programs to maintain infrastructure bought in the past with LWCF funds? You bet, but that’s not what LWCF advocates want.

Instead, they are seeking legislation that would mandate the expenditure of $900 million every year, permanently, with no sunset clause and no future Congressional appropriations oversight.

Good idea? Sure – just imagine giving the Pentagon $600 billion a year without any questions asked. How about giving the Environmental Protection Agency every penny it wants, with no strings attached?

So, it’s not hard to visualize what could happen if LWCF gets “full funding forever” – it will become a dedicated green slush fund for land trusts – something these “nonprofits” are already counting on.

Last fall, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) bought 117,000 acres of forest south of Seeley Lake from Plum Creek Timber (PCL), the company’s last major holdings in the Blackfoot/Clearwater country. The price was $85 million, $726 per acre, for what PCL’s spokesperson told media was mostly “lower production timberland located at relatively higher elevations with slower growing trees” – albatross land PCL was probably delighted to sell at any price.

TNC used funds from the Wyss Foundation (controlled by Swiss medical tycoon Hans Wyss) and the Packard foundations. The money was not gifted, but loaned. According to the London Guardian, Wyss’s $79 million came “in return for majority ownership of the land” while Packard expects its $8 million, 1 percent loan to be paid back. Packard’s representative told the Guardian, “We are very motivated to maintain our capital. We need to recycle it.”

Recycle how? By flipping the land to the government, of course, with LWCF funds! As Guardian reporter Marc Gunther told it, if everything goes “according to plan,” these multibillion-dollar nonprofits “will get their money back and redeploy it into other conservation projects.”

The plan: Pick a parcel, pay a stupid price for it, hold it for sale to the government “at cost,” with sale conditioned on permanent land-use restrictions imposed by the land trusts. Then, “recycle” the cash and move on to the next item on the agenda! Forever!

How cool is that? Cool enough for green slush.