By Emma Castleberry
If your summer activities have included a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a camping trip in the Pisgah National Forest or a hike in the Highlands of Roan, you have (perhaps unknowingly) benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF provides federal funding for conservation projects that protect the lands that Americans use for recreational outdoor activities. “The LWCF was established by Congress in 1964 to address the alarming loss of wild and natural land due to the rapid spread of suburban sprawl,” says Jay Leutze, president of the board of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC). “Conservation leaders were worried that we were losing our collective ‘backyard’—the places where Americans camp, hunt, fish and get away from the stress of modern life.” As part of its design, the LWCF was assigned a portion of revenues from off-shore drilling. No taxpayer dollars are used for the fund.
The LWCF is absolutely integral to the successful operation of organizations like SAHC. “We conserve land in a variety of ways, including outright purchase or donation, conservation easements and assists,” says Angela Shepherd, communications director for SAHC. “In some cases, when a high priority property comes up for sale, SAHC may need to take out loans to secure the land for conservation. Then, when funds are available, we can retire those loans and transfer the land to public ownership.” Often, LWCF provides the funds that make the final stage of this process possible. One example is a 2012 SAHC purchase of a 95-acre in-holding within Pisgah National Forest. Last year, in November of 2017, SAHC was able to transfer those lands into public ownership using funds from the LWCF. Funds from the LWCF are also used by local communities to purchase routes for greenways and bike trails; for the purchase of National Historic Battlefields; to purchase easements in working forests; and to protect the viewshed from overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The LWCF was initially authorized for a 25-year period and then reauthorized for another 25 years. In 2016, the fund was temporarily extended for three years. Without further action from Congress, the LWCF will expire on September 30, 2018. “If the fund expires, land conservation in much of the country will grind to a halt,” says Leutze. The LWCF is a key financial component in the often-complex process of purchasing and protecting public lands. “It’s the only source of federal funds that the Forest Service and the National Park Service have to improve national forests, national parks and our wildlife refuges,” says Tom Kenney, land protection director at Foothills Conservancy.
The LWCF has broad support in Congress, spearheaded by North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and Congressman Patrick McHenry. Despite this, “a small number of Western conservatives who oppose the federal government owning any more land have successfully blocked efforts at reauthorization thus far,” says Leutze. Advocates for letting the fund expire often argue that, until the federal government can maintain and manage the lands already under their purview, more land shouldn’t be acquired. “We do have a maintenance backlog on our public lands—a backlog that was created by Congress in the first place— but we also have a purchase backlog,” says Leutze. “The public owns less than 60 percent of Pisgah National Forest and we can better manage and maintain our public lands if we can consolidate boundaries and purchase in-holdings as they come available from willing sellers.”
Naturally, economics also play a role in the Congressional disagreement. “Some members of Congress are eager to let the LWCF expire because they see conserving land as adverse to economic growth,” says Sharon Taylor, executive director of Mainspring Conservation Trust. “But in WNC, where so many people come for the beauty and recreational opportunities, land conservation enhances economic growth. We are well past the time when we can be passive. If we care about conserving our country’s natural resources and further enhancing wildlife habitat and all of our experiences in the great outdoors, the time has come for us to rally to save the LWCF.”
Perhaps one of the last bastions of protection for this irreplaceable financial resource is the concerned citizen. Leutze, Taylor and Kenney all advise concerned readers to contact their member of Congress and ask them to support the reauthorization of the LWCF. “Time is running out,” says Kenney. “There isn’t much time left to reauthorize this vital program.”
For more information about the LWCF and what you can do to help, visit lwcfcoalition.com.