On Aug. 4, President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, calling it “historic for our public lands.”
While the president’s overall record on conservation is abysmal, by any measure this is one of the most important land conservation actions in our lifetime.
The act provides almost $1 billion a year in permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the most important conservation program that most people have never heard of.
It will also provide almost $2 billion a year for five years to begin to address the estimated $20 billion backlog in national park and other public land maintenance.
Jackson Hole’s own Rob Wallace, now assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks, called it “a generational type of initiative.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico who is one of the real hunter/angler conservation leaders, said permanently and fully funding the conservation program “will be a monumental victory for conservation and the places where we all get outside.” He cited studies showing that each dollar spent by the fund creates an additional four dollars in economic value.
In the usually divided U.S. Congress, this bipartisan legislation passed easily: 73-25 in the Senate and 310-106 in the House. Unfortunately, the entire Wyoming delegation voted against the bill.
In a statement, Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, explained his opposition: “I support the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the many wonderful projects it supports in Wyoming. Over the years, the program funding shifted from being locally focused to being primarily Washington focused. Instead of returning the LWCF back to its original intent, the Great American Outdoors Act gives Washington more authority to buy private land in Wyoming. We can’t afford to maintain the public lands we already own. It’s irresponsible to add more to the mix.”
The senator does not understand the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It is a voluntary conservation program. No one is ever forced to do anything. It helps private landowners and communities all over America accomplish conservation goals they hold dear. Its focus is entirely local.
Here in Jackson Hole, in 2016 the Land and Water Conservation Fund provided $23 million to transfer 640 acres of Wyoming-state-owned property in the Antelope Flats area to Grand Teton National Park. A $23 million match from donations to the Grand Teton Park Foundation also enabled the transaction. That provided $46 million to Wyoming schools while ending decades of threats from Wyoming lawmakers to sell the land to the highest bidder. The popular project likely prevented a major development in the middle of the national park.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal program that was established by an act of Congress in 1964 to provide funds and matching grants to federal, state and local governments for land and water conservation for the benefit of all Americans. The primary goals of the fund are recreation and the protection of natural treasures in the forms of parks, protected landscapes and wildlife habitat areas.
However, the fund also helps provide city parks. We have all been on land conserved by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but Congress never required signage recognizing that fact, so most of the time we do not know it.
Land and Water Conservation Fund revenue comes from public land oil and gas royalties. The logic is impeccable. Public land mineral royalties are used to conserve the best of our natural heritage. Unfortunately, for 55 years Congress has siphoned most of the revenue off to other pet projects. The Great American Outdoors Act finally assures that revenue collected for the Land and Water Conservation Fund will actually be used for its intended purposes.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a giant in land conservation, having provided nearly $4 billion to fund 42,000 projects, according to the Interior Department. Throughout my 40-year career in conservation, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund was top goal and a dream. Amazingly, it is now a reality.