WASHINGTON — It’s the nation’s only pot of federal money whose beneficiaries range from pee wee baseball leaguers to moose hunters to alpine hikers.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) helps federal agencies add acres or buy easements at national parks, wildlife refuges and forestlands. It also provides grants for local and state outdoor-recreation projects, including renovating Boeing Creek Park in Shoreline and expanding Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center in Seattle.
Now LWCF’s supporters are asking Congress for something it has never delivered: the full $900 million annually the fund was promised when President Lyndon Johnson signed the law in 1964.
That demand was the central message at back-to-back news conferences at the Capitol Tuesday. The events — U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and four other lawmakers attended the first one, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., among others, spoke at the second — marked the 50th anniversary of the House of Representatives vote to create the land and water fund.
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Money for the fund comes from royalties from offshore drilling on federal lands. Unlike with the Federal Highway Trust Fund, however, money earmarked for LWCF isn’t deposited into a dedicated account but goes to the treasury instead. Over five decades, $18.8 billion has been diverted for other spending.
That’s because Congress has to appropriate money for the conservation fund every year. In fiscal 2014, that totaled $306 million — one-third the statutory amount.
By comparison, Seattle voters are being asked to approve a ballot proposition next month to create a new Metro Park District, that would raise property taxes to generate about $48 million annually.
“Revenues for oil and gas production have been coming in, so (LWCF) should be funded” in full, Jewell said.
Last year, the Interior Department collected more than $9 billion in royalties.
The LWCF will expire in September 2015 unless Congress reauthorizes it. Supporters want the fund to be renewed permanently. The original legislation was written by late Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington.
The conservation fund’s imprint is visible in all corners of the country, from the Everglades to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to California’s redwood forests.
In Washington, it provided nearly $50 million over the past 20 years to ensure public access to the Mountains to Sound Greenway along I-90, said Hannah Clark, LWCF campaign director with Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a Seattle nonprofit that is among 1,000 conservation groups, landowners, ranchers and others who support the fund.
The fund also paid for open-space expansion at Seattle’s Gas Works Park and for adding disability-accessible bathrooms and parking spaces at Bridle Trails State Park near Kirkland and Bellevue.
But a huge backlog of projects awaits funding. Washington state alone is asking for nearly $30 million in 2015 for 28 projects. They include land acquisitions to expand parts of Olympic National Park, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.
Among the smaller requests are $500,000 to build the $1.9 million Inspiration Playground in downtown Bellevue and $100,000 to improve Arlington’s riverfront.
Full, permanent funding for the LWCF has bipartisan support in Congress. President Obama has requested the maximum $900 million in his 2015 budget. Washington U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray also back full funding.
Supporters, however, say they do not yet have majority support among Republicans.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said more Americans are coming to appreciate the economic benefits of conservation and recreation.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, camping, fishing, hiking and other outdoor activities support 115,000 jobs in Washington. That’s nearly as many Puget Sound-area employees as Boeing and Microsoft combined.
Reichert said protecting natural treasures such as Mount Rainier and the Pacific Crest Trail is also about protecting the nation’s heritage.
In 2014, Reichert was among a handful of members who helped enlist a record 176 of his House colleagues to endorse a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Interior and Environment Subcommittee to urge adequate funding for LWCF. All six House Democrats from Washington signed; Reichert’s three fellow Republicans from the state — Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas and Doc Hastings of Pasco — did not.