Water Conservation Fund Bill Passes Senate But Remains In Limbo

Feb 19, 2019

This week the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping and historic bill that would make the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent. A feat many hunters and fisherman, along with environmentalists, had thought was impossible after the GOP allowed it to lapse last year.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been on the federal books for around fifty years. It takes some revenue from oil and gas drilling leases on federal land and invests that money back into communities while also protecting key sources of clean water, cultural heritage sites and other natural areas. Up to nine hundred million dollars a year is collected into the fund annually and then distributed to states like Wyoming. Senator John Barrasso joined 91 of his colleagues in supporting the act this week.

"I think it's done wonderful for Wyoming," Barrasso said.

Still, the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation had called for Congress to allow the program to expire right after Trump was elected. And in his first two years in office, Trump asked Congress to slash the fund by 90 percent, while also calling for a new development fund for public lands to be created. Barrasso held his nose a tad while voting to support it, especially because this time the Senate passed a permanent authorization of the legislation.

"I do think that with any legislation Congress ought to reauthorize every 25 years or some number of years, so I'd like to see that done," said Barrasso.

Barrasso chairs the Senate environment committee and he's in the GOP leadership team that allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to lapse last year, but he said it was never truly endangered.

"I took a pretty close look at it and there was adequate funding - funds available that hadn't been spent - so that there wasn't a lapse in actual funding of the projects that are being done," Barrasso said.

A report by the Center for Western Priorities released last August found that the failure to reauthorize the program back in September left "223 projects that would protect 318,000 acres" of land at risk. But the number of those parcels - large and small - actually impacted is harder to determine, as Richard Garrett, the external affairs director with Wyoming's branch of the Nature Conservancy, explains.

"I'm not sure that we understand fully. I've read some figures that suggest that we've lost maybe $2.1 million a day during the lapse," said Garrett

Over the years Wyoming has received $35 million for a variety of state projects. And the LWCF has paid for everything from community parks and pools to boat ramps and even snowmobile trails.

"I live in Lander. A ballfield was built using LWCF money. Trails are built, golf courses have been improved. It's spread all across the state for great conservation work," Garrett said.

But Garrett said the money also goes into the national treasures Wyoming has to offer.

"On the federal side we work with a number of other organizations to get Land Water Conservation approved for incorporating the Antelope Flats Parcel into Grand Teton National Park," he said.

That's the scary part to some western conservatives, like Wyoming's lone member of the House, Congresswoman Liz Cheney. While she still hasn't completely studied the final Senate-passed bill, she views it more through the lens of what's not in it than what is in it at this point.

"I would like to see more reforms than we have seen and more reforms that were able to get through. I think the idea of a sort of permanent reauthorization without the significant reforms is a problem, so I would have liked to have seen more reforms make their way in," said Cheney.

She said the top of her list is being able to use the fund to expand federal land.

"Looking at the extent to which that fund has really been used in a lot of ways to, for the government to purchase land, essentially - which the government doesn't need more land. I think that's been a big challenge. So I don't like the fact that we've seen that it's permanently reauthorized," Cheney said.

Cheney hasn't decided how she'll vote on the legislation when it comes to the House, but she's not happy with much of what she's heard thus far.

"There are certainly some good things about it, but I think that there have got to be more restrictions on it so it's not just a way for the federal government to acquire more land ultimately," she said.

Still, the land and water fund's biggest supporters - which includes fishing and hunting groups, along with environmental groups - are thrilled it sailed through the Senate. Garrett, of Wyoming's branch of the Nature Conservancy, said he hopes lawmakers in Washington can learn some lessons from how lawmakers of all stripes were able to come together and pass this permanent reauthorization of the land and water fund.

"It definitely will come out of the highly politicized atmosphere, but it will also, I think, suggest the effectiveness of bipartisan approach[es] to legislation and might serve as an example for other important pieces of legislation," said Garrett.