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Guest column: Land and Water Conservation Fund needs reform to meet original goal

Aug 7, 2016

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the Tri-City Herald’s July 26 editorial titled “Land conservation fund needs stability.” To the contrary, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) as currently administered, is broken and in need of reform. Created more than 50 years ago to “ensure access to outdoor recreation,” the fund was supposed to help Americans. Unfortunately, the law has been hijacked by special interests too close to the government and must be fixed.

Some have impugned the motives of members of Congress, states and recreational groups for wanting to reform the LWCF. Special interests have fought tooth and nail to protect the status quo, denigrating efforts to reprioritize funding for state and local recreation needs as a means to “micromanage,” “eviscerate,” “torpedo” and even “destroy” the 1965 statute. To the contrary, efforts to blindly reauthorize the LWCF on a permanent basis are denying the fact that the law’s original intent to develop recreational opportunities close to home for more Americans was distorted long ago. The LWCF currently authorizes money for purposes including federal land acquisition and the State Assistance Grant Program. The State Assistance program provides matching grants to states to help them expand public recreational access and build parks, ball fields, and trails. Because states know best the needs of the people in their communities, the original 1965 law required that states receive the lion’s share of funding from the LWCF.

Unfortunately, the Stateside Program has been gradually crowded out over the years by the federal government’s powerful drive to acquire more and more land. Originally, 60 percent of the fund went to the states; in recent years, the Stateside Program has dwindled to lower than 10% of total LWCF funding and on average is less than a quarter of what was originally envisioned when Congress created the fund in a bipartisan effort. Even more troubling is how the feds prioritize and spend the money they’re given; acquiring millions of acres of land with little transparency, scant oversight and minimal local input. Federal agencies can’t even identify how much land has been acquired with LWCF funds. Last year, I wrote a letter to the Interior Department, requesting information about the total amount of federal land acquisitions over the life of the program and the goals accomplished through those acquisitions. The Department has been utterly incapable of answering this request. As more land is acquired, federal land management agencies are racking up as much as $19 billion in federal maintenance backlogs on existing lands. This is unacceptable. Unfettered federal land acquisition is especially disturbing for the West, where so much of the land is already owned – and poorly managed – by the federal government—(for example, a little less than one-third of Washington’s land is now federally owned; in my state of Utah, two-thirds is federally owned). More federal land means less land available for schools and infrastructure as well as lost economic opportunity and diminished tax revenue. Further, according to the National Park Service, states today struggle with more than $18.5 billion in unmet local recreational needs.

The means by which land is acquired using LWCF funding must be addressed as well. I recently learned that six states have used LWCF funds for controversial eminent domain projects. Private property is the cornerstone of our land policy and has made our nation free and prosperous, but that right is compromised when the government uses a fund that was intended to create greater public access to lands as a way to take away people’s property. To address this problem, last year, I drafted legislation to eliminate the corrosion of the law and restore the honorable intent of public recreation and access. The “Protecting America’s Recreation and Conservation Act” (PARC Act) strengthens the original intent of LWCF, while eliminating the use of LWCF funds to condemn land through eminent domain and significantly curtailing the ballooning federal land acquisition. The PARC Act leaves no room for funding abuses and ensures the federal government’s priorities properly focus on strictly identified inholdings that actually expand public access or improve maintenance of the hundreds of millions of acres it already owns. Since the LWCF’s inception, the needs and geographical distribution of our population have changed. Communities across the country – particularly in urban areas – lack opportunities to enjoy America’s land. Provisions in the PARC Act will encourage people, particularly children in urban areas, to get the kind of recreational access they need to lead healthy, flourishing lives.

Governors, state park advocates and recreation groups are calling to restore the LWCF to its original purpose. Congress has an obligation to evaluate all laws, especially those that have been on the books for decades, and when found failing, improve them. This is about basic good governance and precisely the reason why laws are subject to re-authorization. Calls by some to permanently authorize LWCF deny this fundamental accountability to taxpayers and an opportunity to restore the intent of law and improve it for future generations. The LWCF is one of those laws in need of reform – not permanent reauthorization. By acknowledging the successes and failures of the LWCF, we can end its longstanding abuses and restore its benefit to more and more Americans.Rep. Rob Bishop ( R-Utah’s 1st Congressional District), is Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has jurisdiction over LWCF.

BY ROB BISHOP

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