Congress fails to reauthorize conservation fund

Wyoming members of Congress would like to see changes to how the money is used

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As Congress broke for the Christmas break — and in a partial government shutdown — the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was one of the programs left behind. Wyoming senators have pledged a quick resolution to the issue, though the fund’s yearly appropriations expired in September.

Congress created the LWCF in 1965, using money primarily collected from taxes on offshore drilling.

Since then, it’s helped fund outdoor recreation projects across the country. Projects funded over the past 54 years include several in Powell, including the construction of most city parks, Little League ball parks and improvements to the Powell Golf Club and Homesteader Park. If you look hard you can find plaques attributing the funds to the LWCF, said Del Barton, Powell Parks Superintendent.

The money brought into the city amounts to more than $688,000, although much of that came early in the fund’s history. Almost $90 million has gone to helping national parks in the state. Despite the delay, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is confident the fund — which is popular on both sides of aisle — will be re-appropriated when the Senate reconvenes.

“In January, the new Congress will make it a priority to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). There are multiple proposals being considered,” Barrasso said, responding to email questions.

The LWCF act itself doesn’t ever expire; it would take an act of Congress to do away with the legislation permanently. State matching funds, about $125 million, are automatically made available each year without any congressional action. But Congress has to approve large chunks of the money — up to $775 million available to national parks and federal entities such as the Bureau of Land Management. Much of those funds are used to buy land or for conservation improvement projects.

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., “appreciates what the Land and Water Conservation Fund has done in Wyoming — including providing increased access for fishing and recreation,” said Max D’Onofrio, press secretary for the senator.

But Enzi would like to attach the passing of the bill to the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA) at the same time. That’s a bill that allows the Bureau of Land Management to sell certain “strategic” pieces of federal land in the West to “provide funding for high-priority land conservation.”

Sen. Enzi “understands the importance of the program to folks throughout the state and hopes that Congress will be able to act quickly next year to reauthorize the program with appropriate reforms or reauthorization of the FLTFA,” D’Onofrio said.

But time is lost money, according to Landon Blanchard, Wyoming spokesperson for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

The fund could lose millions until Congress acts, Blanchard said.

“The Wyoming Wildlife Federation and our members are disappointed with the recent news that Congress was unable to act to reauthorize and fully fund the widely popular Land and Water Conservation Fund program,” he said.

While the organization pressed hard to bring attention to full authorization through the year and expressed disappointment with the legislation not being a priority in Congress, they have kept their statements tame in the wait.

“WWF appreciates Sen. Barrasso’s support of this critically important program. Furthermore, WWF supports bipartisan efforts to reauthorize LWCF and will continue to fight for this important conservation funding source,” the organization said in response to statements by Enzi and Barrasso.

Full authorization of the legislation would bring in about $900 million for projects nationwide. Typically, Congress fails to fully authorize the bill, siphoning off as much as 60 percent of the funds for other uses — typically for defense spending. Tax revenue not included in appropriations goes into the general fund for use for other priorities. The LWCF has only been fully funded twice in its history.

Thirty cities across the nation, including several in Colorado and Montana, have passed resolutions encouraging Congress for a full reauthorization.

Yet, many in Congress have issues with the way funds are being used. U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., believes many projects funded by the LWCF have merit. In recent years, however, LWCF funds have “too often been used by Washington bureaucrats to expand the size of the federal estate,” said Maddy Weast, press secretary for Cheney.

“Congresswoman Cheney supports reforming the Land and Water Conservation Fund to achieve its original intent of preserving, developing, and ensuring access to public recreational areas,” Weast said.

Sen. Barrasso echoed Cheney’s concerns on Friday.

“Since its passage in 1965, the program funding shifted, and federal priorities like land acquisition received far more money than important state priorities, like local parks,” Barrasso said.

The key in the coming weeks seems to be how much of the $900 million Congress will appropriate, what changes will be made to how the money is used and if local communities can tap into the source to improve local outdoor opportunities.

Kaela Nelson, finance director for the City of Powell, said the last time funds were obtained for projects in the city was in 2002; $54,821 for improvements to the golf course. That improvement project was finished in 2007.

Many of the projects funded in Powell are decades old and some of those facilities are in need of updates, Nelson has said. The city would have a hard enough time coming up with matching funds for outdoor recreation projects — let alone the full amount, she said earlier this year.

Dwayne Meadows, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Federation, said Congress made “a massive mistake” by letting the program expire.

“Wyomingites know well the value of LWCF,” he said. “It’s been an integral program for expanding access for hunting and angling.”

Barrasso said he’s not worried about the future of the fund due to its reserves.

“Although the authorization for LWCF expired in September, the fund still has more than $20 billion in reserve. This means LWCF would be able to continue to fund priorities for many years to come,” Barrasso said.

While Congress missed the opportunity to reauthorize the fund by the deadline, the funds are still being accounted for, and as long as Congress acts before September 2019, the revenue will still go into reserves.

Through her spokeswoman, Cheney similarly said there is no hurry to reauthorize the fund due to its large reserve.

“There is no need to rush reauthorizing the LWCF without making critical steps towards improving this program,” Weast said.

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