Game changer: It’s time to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). I’ve asked you to get involved by letting your senators and elected representatives in Congress know how important this program is to the Pacific Crest Trail and public lands and how much these amazing places mean to you.

And they’ve heard you. Last spring, Congress permanently reauthorized the LWCF. But that measure didn’t go far enough. We need Congress to act again by approving full and permanent funding to ensure that money from the LWCF is spent every year for the purpose intended: land protection.

So, please forgive the Déjà vu. I’m writing again to encourage you to take action. We are on the cusp of a game changer in terms of protecting and improving the Pacific Crest Trail and many other public lands across the country.

Hikers admire the view from the Trinity Divide in northern California, where the PCTA helped protect 17 miles of the PCT this year with $10 million from the LWCF.

First a little history. Seeing a dim future for the country’s most beautiful landscapes, Congress created the LWCF in 1965 so we had a reliable method of preserving land for future generations. Currently, the LWCF allows Congress to spend up to $900 million annually for land conservation projects. The money does not come from taxpayers, but from lease payments on offshore oil and gas development. It’s a great way to mitigate the damage caused by our energy extraction. And it’s spent in every state to preserve land for national forests and wilderness, national parks, ball fields and playgrounds and urban greenways. The LWCF touches every corner of America.

Historically, Congress has done a poor job of living up to the original intent of the LWCF. In the 54 years since the LWCF was first authorized, Congress fully funded it only once. ONCE! Most years, money is diverted to other programs. Meanwhile, development and resource extraction pressures on public land and surrounding private property continues.

Bills pending in the U.S. Senate (S.1081) and House of Representatives (H.R. 3195) would help change that. They call for guaranteed annual expenditures of $900 million from the LWCF. Every year, the full $900 million would be spent. Game changer.

There are some in Congress who don’t want to see the inventory of public land grow by even an acre. I get it. They point to the $20 billion worth of deferred maintenance on the nation’s federally managed lands and waters, including $11.9 billion in national parks and approximately $5.2 billion in national forests. Roads, trails, bridges, trailheads and other facilities are in disrepair. These “no new land” folks insist we deal with the maintenance backlog instead.

But we really need to do both.

Deferred maintenance is a problem, for sure. The PCTA supports a spending bill now being considered that would tackle the backlog in national parks and urges Congress to add the U.S. Forest Service backlog to that bill as well.

In 2016, the PCTA saved Landers Meadow from development and was reimbursed with LWCF funding.

But we also need the LWCF to be fully funded every year. It’s the best tool we have to buy the property we need to complete our National Trails System — 11 national scenic and 19 national historic trails. In many cases, decades after Congressional designation, these trail corridors run across miles and miles of private land.

About 10% of the PCT remains privately held, with the footpath in many places protected only by a simple easement. These properties could one day be covered with buildings or power lines. Purchasing them (only from willing sellers) will preserve the wilderness trail experience Congress intended. Over the past 18 years, almost $46 million in LWCF funding has been used to acquire and permanently protect just over 33,000 acres along the PCT.

Those numbers are amazing, but we could be doing so much more. There are more willing sellers than dollars available. And we must be opportunistic when it comes to purchasing land. If we aren’t, properties will slip away, buildings will be built. Power lines and pipelines will go in. The PCT and the landscapes around it will be squeezed.

In November 2017, the LWCF provided $1.6 million to save 402 acres at Stevens Pass, Wash., from development.

The LWCF is the country’s best hope for preventing this kind of development, so-called progress that only degrades our most wild places. Congress realized this when permanently reauthorizing the program this year.

So, forgive the repetition, but our work is not yet done. Call or email your representatives in the House and Senate. Tell them how much you love the PCT and public land. Urge them to pass the bills that now have great bi-partisan support. Your call is important. Your voice matters.

This is how we change the game for the better.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.