Opinion

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Closing Range

Lost to the General Treasury

Greens have long viewed the Land and Water Conservation Fund as their special entitlement

With Congress quiet for a whole week, and the Montana Legislature not yet in session, I’m looping back to a topic I’ve neglected: the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Since Sept. 1 alone, the Beacon has published at least seven opinion articles regarding LWCF, three in December alone. By some strange coincidence, every one supports extension or reauthorization of LWCF, which, after a three-year extension, Congress just let expire.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund as we know it became law in 1965 – the second year of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of butter and guns.

Congress got three things right with LWCF. One, LWCF’s funding source was Outer Continental Shelf petroleum royalties, a big change from an earlier, much-more-limited version funded by a tax on outboard motors. The idea, sensible even now, was to take some of the cash from a finite natural resource (how everyone thought of oil back then) and plow that back into construction and/or purchase of long-term, even permanent outdoor recreation opportunities (lands, facilities, or both).

Two, Congress capped LWCF at $900 million annually (a lot of dough back in 1965), split 50/50 between federal acquisitions and state/local cost sharing. Further, LWCF required Congress to appropriate where and how much of that $900 million (if any) was spent each year.

Three, LWCF originally passed with a 50-year “sunset clause.” Congress intended LWCF expire on Sept. 30, 2015, the end of that federal fiscal year.

A great Congressional Research Service report I recommend you examine tells how it all worked out, but here’s the gist:

First, out of the possible $40 billion that could have been spent on LWCF goals, $18.4 billion was appropriated. In short, Congress didn’t blow every dime – except in 1998 and 2001.

Second, of the $18.4 billion spread around, 61 percent of the spent funds ($11.22 billion) went to federal purchases, with only 25 percent going to the state cost-share program, which requires state matches. Fourteen percent went to “other purposes,” including the Forest Legacy Program and conservation easement funding.

These highlights raise several important issues: First, is the act of continuing to add federal acreage wise? Let’s consider the billions in claimed management “backlogs” by federal land management agencies – $11 billion by the Park Service all by itself, another $5 billion for the rest of Interior, plus around $10 billion for the Forest Service. If existing responsibilities are too much, why add more?

Second, while Congress spent $18.4 billion on LWCF over the years, they left $22 billion in the Treasury. That’s good in the face of our $21 trillion national debt, right? Not according to Greens, who stood up an “LWCF Coalition” run by the Wilderness Society several years back in order to lobby, not merely to extend LWCF for another 50 years, but for a “fully-funded” (meaning no more Congressional oversight) and permanent (no expiration date) LWCF.

Why no oversight? Well, Greens have long viewed LWCF as their special entitlement, and to keep it, advocates see nothing wrong with declaring that LWCF, as the Wilderness Society claims, “costs taxpayers nothing.”

Trouble is, that’s a screaming lie. Other federal mineral royalties, including non-LWCF OCS royalties, go into the general federal treasury pool, just like every single dime that you pay in federal taxes. Put another way, given a certain level of federal spending, every penny of OCS not spent on LWCF lowered your taxes. Don’t think so?

Well, an LWCF Coalition “report” admits as much, by huffily declaring the $22 billion Congress spent elsewhere was “siphoned off each year in the appropriations process for other, unknown and unaccountable purposes” – or as the Coalition further asserted, “lost to the General Treasury.”

Roll that over your lips again, slowly … “lost to the General Treasury.” Can you taste the entitlement? The arrogance?

So, count me among those who weren’t too upset three years ago when LWCF barely passed a voice vote for a three-year extension in 2015, expiring in 2018. And now, it seems the outgoing Congress failed to pass either an extension or renewal of LWCF. Happy New Year!