Buyers (aka taxpayers), beware: The Land and Water Conservation Fund is not what you might think.
Some on Capitol Hill have floated the idea of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanently. In Washington budget-speak, that means creating a new autopilot mandatory program.
Congress created the conservation fund in 1964 to “assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility to … outdoor recreation resources.”
The idea was for 60% of the funds to go to states, and 40% to go to federal uses. So, it’s billed as a program that’s great for states and communities, and enjoys broad bipartisan popularity, helped along by packaging its message with images of scenic parks and wildlife.
But there’s a lot more to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The reality is, Congress has a major spending and control problem.
Only 26% of the funds ($4.8 billion) have gone to states and communities since its creation. A full 60% of the funding ($11.4 billion) has gone to federal land acquisition, and the remainder to loosely connected federal conservation programs.
In other words, historically, the conservation fund is better described as a federal program that expands federal control of America’s land and water.
Recognizing that the fund had lost its way, Congress amended the law last year to require no less than 40% go to state programs and 40% go to federal purposes.
That’s still a raw deal for states, but the problems with the Land and Water Conservation Fund are deeper than that, and the move to fully and permanently fund the program should bring that to the fore.
First, regardless of how supporters frame the conversation, debate over the Land and Water Conservation Fund comes down to a question of whether the federal government should have unrestrained ability to buy more land.
The federal landholdings cover more than 640 million acres above ground and an additional 700 million acres underground and 1.7 billion acres off America’s coasts. The federal government owns more than half of Oregon (53%), Alaska (61%), Idaho (62%), Utah (63%), and Nevada (80%).
Evidence shows that the federal government is not always the best manager of these lands. That necessarily raises the question of why it wants yet more land.
Secondly, permanent full funding for lands sounds nice. It’s certainly more convenient for Congress, but there are also problems with that. Automatic funding dilutes the oversight and influence Congress has over the program and presidential administrations through the annual budget process.
It also creates yet another pot of money Congress can tap for budget gimmicks, disguising increases in spending for other, totally unrelated areas of the government.
Only twice has Congress ever fully appropriated the full $900 million authorized by the law—under President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 2001. One can only imagine what mischief would be engaged in with annual full funding under such loose parameters.
Finally, states and townships should debate and prioritize community amenities and the means to pay for them. It should not be the responsibility of the federal government to support highly local projects, such as golf courses, soccer fields, boat ramps, and playgrounds.
Even then, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been highly problematic for some communities by creating red tape that has blocked them from using innovative ideas to make local recreation sites affordable and to meet evolving community needs.
Grant recipients must maintain a park for public outdoor recreation in perpetuity unless they are able to propose a land exchange of equal value and recreational use that is acceptable to the Department of Interior. That’s a highly bureaucratic and time-consuming process.
Full and permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund legitimizes the notion that the federal government should be empowered to acquire more lands in perpetuity.
Instead, Congress should be talking about how to “assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility” to the lands we already have.
A great place to start would be repurposing the Land and Water Conservation Fund to take care of the maintenance backlog at national parks so that those lands are more accessible to Americans.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal