What the funding fight means for national parks

Story highlights

  • Congress is debating the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • Environmentalists fear pending land conservation projects are at risk if Congress doesn't reauthorize the law
  • House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah is a critic of the law, saying it has become a tool for the federal government to simply buy more land

(CNN)Conservatives and conservationists are clashing over the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 50-year-old program that is suddenly in the middle of a spending battle on Capitol Hill.

The fund uses royalties from offshore oil drilling to help purchase and develop outdoor recreation areas. It's led to the creation of tens of thousands of small projects like parks, beaches, trails, hunting and fishing areas, and baseball fields, in addition to funding bigger conservation projects in national parks and wildlife refuges.
It's one of dozens of policy issues that both sides are haggling over, and leaders are hoping to reach final deal next week.
    Despite wide bipartisan support for the program throughout its history, Congress did not reauthorize it for the first time on September 30 due to protests from conservatives who say the fund has become an example of federal overreach.
    Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, is the most vocal critic of the law, saying it has evolved into a land-grabbing tool for a federal government that already owns vast amounts of land.
    He wrote in an op-ed for Politico that Washington is "acquiring millions of acres of land with little transparency, scant oversight and minimal local input" yet not addressing its massive backlog of $19 billion in maintenance projects in national parks. He added that the program is allocating less of the fund to state and local governments as originally intended—only about 16% in 2015.
    Bishop has proposed a new law that would significantly reduce money for federal land acquisition. That has environmentalists worried about pending LWCF projects under federal land agencies like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
    LWCF funds would help, for example, acquire 44 acres of private land within Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona, to protect it from development. The money would also go toward obtaining unprotected areas at Olympic National Park in Washington to prevent nearby private properties from discharging sewage in the park's Lake Quinault.
    Environmental groups argue that Bishop is distorting the facts when he describes the fund as a guise for the government to collect more land. According to the Wilderness Society, 99% of Interior Department projects using LWCF funds are used to protect inholdings -- lands that are already within the boundaries of a national park or wildlife refuge.
    Environmentalists also argue that it's untrue that less than a fifth of LWCF funds are going to the states, saying that statistic refers to just one of five state grant programs funded by the program. They are pushing for a clean re-authorization of the law, especially as the National Park Service gears up for its centennial celebration in 2016.
    "Every day that LWCF goes unauthorized and without a permanent funding solution, many National Parks projects will go unfunded in the year of the Centennial," said Alan Rowsome, director of government relations for lands at the Wilderness Society. "This would be disappointing and doesn't have happen if Congress can solve the issue in the coming days as part of a broad package heading to the President's desk before Christmas."
    House Speaker Paul Ryan's office and the Appropriations Committee did not comment on how the LWCF debate might play out in the end-of-the-year spending bill.