Supporters Work To Make The Land And Water Conservation Fund Permanent

By Bret Jaspers, Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 12:30pm
Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 12:32pm

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Havasu Falls in Havasu Canyon on Havasupai tribe land
M. Quinn/NPS
Havasu Falls.

LAUREN GILGER: But first, in addition to impeachment, Congress is trying to finish the budget process for the current fiscal year. That can crowd out other bills, even bipartisan ones, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It's a fund for governments to buy land, and advocates are trying to make it permanent. Here to explain more is KJZZ's Bret Jaspers. Good morning, Bret.

BRET JASPERS: Hi.

GILGER: OK. So how does the Land and Water Conservation Fund work?

JASPERS: The money for this fund comes mainly from offshore oil and gas leases. It's not tax money. And then, within the fund, there are two ways the money is given out. One is a pot for cities and counties to buy land for local needs, like a park or a golf course or trails. And the other pot of money is for federal agencies. Here's a cut from Corey Fisher with the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

COREY FISHER: So if you have, you know, a given national forest, the existing boundaries of that national forest you know are not necessarily set in stone. And if there's an adjacent land owner, or somebody that maybe has an inholding within that existing national forest and their wish is to sell that property to the American people, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a way that they can do that, a funding source to add to those existing public lands.

JASPERS: So the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been around since the 1960s, but has needed Congress to both renew it periodically and then fund it. And what advocates are trying to do is get the funding made permanent so the money is always there at a certain amount.

GILGER: OK. How much money are we talking about, though?

JASPERS: The permanent funding would be $900 million annually. And at the same time, Congress is negotiating budget appropriations right now for the current fiscal year. And on that track, the amount is much lower. But again, that track is just for the current fiscal year. And so the permanent funding, like I said, they're seeking $900 million annually.

GILGER: OK. So this has bipartisan support, like I mentioned in the intro there. So what's all this anxiety about it?

JASPERS: Well, there's some backstory here. When it was first started, the fund was authorized for 25 years. And then, when that ended, it was authorized for another 25 years and that ended in 2015. And the Republican in charge of the House Natural Resources Committee at that time — Rob Bishop of Utah — he was not a fan of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. And the fund expired for a couple of months in 2015, was reauthorized for a short period, and last year it expired again. So the fund has been, you know, like less stable recently. And this past spring, a big public lands bill became law, and inside that was a permanent authorization for the fund. So that became law, and that prevents it from expiring again. But like I've been saying, the permanent money is what they're working on right now.

GILGER: The money. OK. So where does it stand now?

JASPERS: Well, the permanent funding bill passed the Natural Resources Committees in both the House and the Senate with the votes from both parties. Arizona's Democrats, our five representatives and Senator Sinema are all sponsors of the actual bills. Republican Senator Martha McSally voted for it in her place on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

GILGER: So what's the obstacle?

JASPERS: Well, Fisher from Trout Unlimited says the obstacle right now is the fact that there's just so much other stuff going on right now in Congress.

FISHER: Political focus on other things is shifting and is going to shift from passing legislation like this. I think time is probably our stiffest opposition at this point. That's what we're going to be up against as the legislative calendar starts to shrink more and more.

JASPERS: Fisher says that the most likely way this passes is if it's part of a big collection of energy and public lands bills, kind of like that package from the spring, so there's something for everyone in it. But he wasn't sure what that vehicle would actually be. A Congressional Budget Office report says that the House bill would add over $7 billion dollars in spending over 10 years, and that's not a huge amount. But a spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee said to me in an email that the budget score and the need for a funding offset are "still real challenges."

GILGER: All right. KJZZ's Bret Jaspers. Bret, thanks so much.

JASPERS: You're welcome.

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