Battle Over a $900 Million Booty

It is one of the most obscure public endowments on the books. Yet it is also one of the most important tools for promoting natural resource protection in US history, each year benefitting tens of millions of Americans.

In the past three decades, money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as it's called, has been used to help preserve more than seven million acres of land - an area the size of New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Its footprint is on everything from urban playgrounds in Boston to the serene headlands of California's Big Sur.

Now, however, the fund lies at the heart of a quiet debate in Congress over what to do with its $900 million annual booty. The outcome will help define some of the nation's environmental and fiscal priorities.

To recreation and environmental groups, the fund represents a wellspring of unrealized potential for preserving the nation's "outdoor heritage" and nipping contentious land use conflicts in the bud. To President Clinton and lawmakers operating in frugal fiscal times, the LWCF has been viewed as a reservoir of discretionary "floating money" that can be diverted to fill gaps in the federal budget.

"We view what has happened to the fund as breaking a promise to the American people," says Mary Beth Beetham with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife in Washington. "The purpose of the fund was to buy and set aside land so that present and future generations can enjoy the outdoors. Unfortunately, the fund has been raided...."

The fund's genesis dates back to 1964 when Lyndon Johnson enacted a recreation tax that generated about $200 million divided unequally between federal agencies and states. Within a few years, the fund ceiling grew to $900 million annually based on royalties collected from offshore oil and gas leases.

One caveat with the fund is that Congress has the discretion to appropriate whatever amount of the $900 million it wishes. Theoretically, all of the annual sum not appropriated gets credited to the LWCF account, which now stands at $13 billion. However, the figure can be misleading because in reality it exists only on paper, almost as an IOU.

Jason Rylander, editor of The Land Letter published by the Conservation Fund, has been tracking annual appropriations of the LWCF and says that since the early 1980s the average amounts made available for federal and state land acquisitions has been dropping. Part of it stems from a sentiment among conservative Republicans to keep government from buying up more private property. The real culprit, he says, is that presidents and congresses have looked upon the LWCF in times of deficit spending as an opportunity to "rob Peter in order to pay Paul."

FEARING further cuts in appropriations by the 105th Congress, a 150-member coalition of recreation, hunting, and environmental interests have banded together to form Americans for Our Our Heritage and Recreation. The gathering appears to have found an unlikely ally in Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which later this spring will hold bi-partisan strategy sessions on ways to increase federal funding to outdoor recreation projects.

Among Mr. Murkowski's priorities is convincing his congressional colleagues to reallocate LWCF monies for state grants programs, which have gone unfunded the last few years.

A committee staffer says that in addition to making more money available for trails, wildlife habitat, and picnic areas Murkowski sees cooperation as a means to build bridges with conservationists who have fought with him over other public lands issues such as logging and mining.

"For the first time in a long time, Congress appears interested in talking about recreation and open space and why those things are important to people," says Rylander. "Republicans are tired of being the 'black hats' on environmental issues."

In his budget proposal for 1998, Clinton asked for $166 million in federal LWCF allocation. Although a slight increase over last year, it is still is one of the lowest levels since the early 1970s. "Until now, there has been no political price to pay for shifting funds away from the Land and Water Conservation Fund," says Rylander. "With more and more people speaking out for parks and voting for park bonds in their states, that may be changing."

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