If you’ve ever picnicked at Point Reyes National Seashore, hiked in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or watched birds in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, then you’ve been among the countless beneficiaries of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. However, the fund might not have a familiar name. Despite granting more than $16.8 billion to preserve outdoor recreation areas in this country, with close to $66 million going to the Bay Area, the LWCF’s contributions often aren’t appreciated outside of conservation circles. That low profile may push the fund past its expiration date next year.
“The LWCF suffers from a branding problem,” said Amy Lindholm, LWCF campaign manager for The Wilderness Society. “A lot of folks know federal funds are used to buy these lands, but they don’t really know where that money comes from.”
Now a little recognition could go a long way; the fund needs reauthorization by Congress before the end of September 2015. A nationwide coalition of 1,000-plus organizations is ramping up efforts to get legislation passed that will keep the fund going forever. Although the bill (S. 338, Baucus) has bipartisan support in Congress, that may not be enough to save the LWCF — or the backlog of projects on its funding list — in these budget-crunching times.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act into law on September 3, 1964, the idea was simple: Preserve access to natural resources with some of the money collected for using those resources. Congress authorized the LWCF to draw up to $900 million annually from revenue generated by offshore oil and gas leases, federal motorboat fuel taxes, and surplus property sales. Those monies could then be distributed to four federal agencies — the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service — or to individual states for outdoor recreation lands, access, or parks. The LWCF could also grant money for related conservation efforts, such as saving working forests, easing land use conflicts with endangered species, or preserving historic battlegrounds.
Each year, after getting recommendations from the president, Congress votes on how much of those resource revenues actually end up in the fund’s coffers. Despite the high demand for LWCF grants, the full $900 million authorization has only been appropriated twice during the last five decades.
“The fund acts like a big toolbox,” Lindholm explained. “It has a variety of ways to allocate money based on what conservation needs are within a given year.”
Over the years, about 62 percent of LWCF funding has been used for federal land acquisition, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report. Of that money, the National Park Service has received 42 percent of the federal agencies’ share. Nearly $14 million from these funds helped the NPS buy 3,858 acres of the historic Rancho Corral de Tierra in San Mateo County. This property became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and helped connect the Bay Area Ridge Trail with the California Coastal Trail.
When grants from the LWCF are awarded to states, the outdoor recreation projects must have matching funds from other sources. The formula for portioning out that money is based, in part, on the state’s population. With more than 38 million people, California has qualified for a larger share of these funds — over $2 billion to date — than any other state.
Among the nine Bay Area counties, San Mateo is the top state grant-getter, with LWCF awards totaling $12,597,763. Most of those monies were received during the earlier decades of the fund. The most recent grant, of $540,913, was awarded in 2012 to improve the Crystal Springs Regional Trail.
Alameda County ranked second, garnering $12,058,604 in LWCF funds. The most recent award, in 2013, gave the East Bay Regional Park District $120,000 for campground improvements at Livermore’s Del Valle Regional Park.
In the past few years, other LWCF awards around the San Francisco Bay include: $249,835 for new multiple-use bike trails and other amenities at McLaren Bike Park in the City of San Francisco; $250,000 to help acquire about 83 acres to create the new Mark West Regional Park and Open Space Preserve in Santa Rosa; and $175,000 for improvements of Marin County’s Samuel P. Taylor South Creek Trails.
“Now is a key time for the park system: The East Bay Regional Park District is celebrating its 8o-year anniversary, the California state park system is 150 years old, and the National Park Service turns 100 next year,” said Robert Doyle, the general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District. “All these parks are getting old, so we need to keep every funding opportunity available.”
To draw attention to places the fund has helped preserve, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made highly publicized visits to urban parks and national recreation areas last summer. But without a media blitz, Doyle noted it’s easy to overlook the blue signs that mark the LWCF’s contributions to conservation areas.
“The [LWCF] impact is broad, but the places that resonate with people aren’t going to be the same,” said Kathy DeCoster, vice president and director of federal affairs for The Trust for Public Land. “So we also have to highlight the long-term investments these funds make, from iconic places like the redwood forests to local attachments for particular parks.”
In the Bay Area, spectacular natural resource areas have helped to consistently pull in large LWCF grants. For example, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has received more than $88 million, Point Reyes National Seashore has been awarded more than $54 million, and the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge received more than $52 million. Farther afield, but popular with many people in this region, the LWCF granted almost $190 million for land acquisition and trail access around Lake Tahoe Basin.
But not everyone is sold on the LWCF. U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, thinks this is a good time to reevaluate the program’s priorities, especially given the current multibillion dollar maintenance backlog on our federal lands. Jill Griffiths, the committee’s communications director, said Hastings believes “we shouldn’t be spending millions of taxpayer dollars to buy more federal land when the government can’t afford to maintain the land it already owns.”
The LWCF does allow some funds to be used to maintain parks and facilities. But federal agencies cannot use LWCF grants to address critical maintenance projects as they best see fit — and that’s important because Congress is much more likely to fund ribbon-cutting projects than mundane projects like repairing leaky wastewater systems in national parks, said Shawn Regan, research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana.
Other legislators want to see more specific designations for LWCF funds. For example, U.S. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri introduced the No More Land Act, which restricts LWCF funds to maintenance and prohibits land acquisition.
If Congress doesn’t pass the permanent reauthorization bill, the LWCF won’t necessarily disappear. But it will then need to be voted for on an annual basis.
“The LWCF is really a critical funding source now,” Doyle said. “Young people are moving into cities where there may not be national parks close by. We’re lucky. Not everyone has the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or Point Reyes in their back yard.”
Elizabeth Devitt is a freelance science writer based in Santa Cruz.