The federal government owns between 635 million and 640 million acres of land in the entire United States, nearly 30 percent of the country and nearly half of the western U.S. This massive amount of federal ownership has resulted in land mismanagement, stifled opportunities for recreation and resource production, and poor environmental management. Rather than recognizing that federal control is the problem, Congress is pushing to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—which would enable Washington to acquire even more land. Congress should reject attempts to reauthorize the LWCF.
Rather than placing more decisions under Washington’s control, Congress should empower the states and local communities to protect their environments, maximize the value of the land, and create new opportunities for economic development.
LWCF: A Brief History and Its Use
Congress enacted the LWCF in 1965 as a way for the federal government to purchase private land and turn it into public parks and other recreation areas, using royalties from offshore energy development. The primary federal agencies using LWCF funds are the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. The LWCF also contains a state grant program “for recreational planning; acquiring recreational lands, waters, or related interests; and developing outdoor recreational facilities.”
The Obama Administration introduced a competitive state grant program for more densely populated and “economically disadvantaged” areas. Previous Administrations allocated LWCF funds for “other purposes” to related programs in the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service. These include the Forest Service highway rehabilitation and maintenance program, and the Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Grants.
While the LWCF collects revenues through Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing, Congress determines the level of appropriations each year. From the fund’s creation in 1965 through fiscal year 2014, offshore royalty revenues generated more than $36 billion for the LWCF. Over that time, Congress appropriated $16.8 billion, leaving a “credit” of more than $19 billion in the fund. Of the $16.8 billion spent, 62 percent has gone to federal land acquisition, 25 percent to state programs, and 13 percent to other purposes.
Representative Raul Grijalva (D–AZ) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA) recently introduced bills to reauthorize the LWCF permanently. The House and Senate bills specify that the funds collected would be used not only for land acquisition, but that at least 1.5 percent would be allocated for hunting, fishing, and recreational purposes as well as conservation programs.
Economic and Environmental Problems from Federal Land Ownership
The LWCF itself sounds innocuous; after all, who would not want to protect and conserve America’s land and water resources? The issue is not whether Americans can protect the land, but who is in the best position to do so, and who is in the best position to maximize the value of that land, both economically and environmentally.
Eliminating the LWCF will not create more environmental degradation; in fact, just the opposite. America’s largest land holder, the Department of the Interior, has a maintenance backlog of $13.5 billion to $20 billion for the land it already owns—a deficit leading to environmental degradation, soil erosion, gross amounts of littering, and land mismanagement. Conversely, according to a recent Property and Environment Research Council report, “On average, states generate more revenue per dollar spent than the federal government on a variety of land management activities, including timber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.”
States have a clear incentive to not only take care of these lands but also to use them productively. On the other hand, the federal government is so large and bureaucratic; it is slow to correct problems, and disengaged from proper land management. By devolving responsibility to those parties closest to the issue—who can prioritize problems, solve them effectively, and properly weigh the needs and desires of local communities—the result will be better land use and environmental protection, enacted in ways that suit the needs of local population. The State of California, for instance, can protect MacArthur Park and has a vested interest in doing so, and Pennsylvania likewise can protect the Gettysburg battlefield. Both sites have received LWCF funds.
Furthermore, states will still generate revenues from economic activity without the LWCF. But it will be directly tied to the way they use their land, as opposed to indirectly through offshore royalty revenues. With involvement from local communities, states can reserve areas for fishing and hunting and generate new opportunities for economic activity. Empowering the states to oversee higher levels of economic growth will increase revenues for all the undertakings that the LWCF aims to protect.
A Better Path to Grow the Economy and Protect the Environment
In order to promote energy development, economic growth, and environmental stewardship—instead of permanently authorizing the LWCF—Congress and the Administration should:
- Open access to natural resource development. The next Administration should open all federal waters and federal lands that are not part of the national park system or congressionally designated areas to exploration and production for all of America’s natural resources.
- Shift power to the states. Short of transferring land to states and private citizens, Congress should delegate authority to states for environmental review and permitting of energy projects on federal lands within their borders. Allowing states to regulate the energy resources and all economic activity on federal lands (which they already do on state lands) means more efficient and accountable management and frees federal resources for more pressing issues. The Federal Lands Freedom Act gives states the authority to administer leasing, permitting, and regulatory programs for development of all energy resources on federal lands.
- Implement 50/50 royalty revenue sharing for offshore drilling. States receive 50 percent of the revenues generated by onshore oil and natural gas production on federal lands, and Congress should apply this allocation offshore as well. Drilling off states’ coasts and allowing them a larger share of the royalty revenue would encourage more state involvement in drilling decisions. Offshore drilling would promote state and local government participation in allocating funds as well, whether closing a state’s deficit or for coastal restoration and conservation.
Permanently reauthorizing the LWCF is a recipe for prolonging mediocre and often poor federal control of America’s land. Permanently eliminating the LWCF is a recognition that improved economic growth and environmental quality is not borne out of Washington, but in the states.—Nicolas D. Loris is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.