Congress let the Land and Water Conservation Fund expire Sept. 30, but lawmakers have a chance to right that wrong by bringing its reauthorization to floor votes before this lame-duck session ends.
The LWCF, established by Congress in 1964 and funded through a cut of offshore oil and gas leases, has delivered about $294 million in conservation funding across South Carolina alone, and at no cost to taxpayers. It has helped preserve public lands and historic sites, including Fort Sumter, and provided matching funds for dozens of local and state conservation and recreation projects, including the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, Falls Park in downtown Greenville, Congaree National Park in Columbia and more than 20 parks in Charleston. It has also provided funding for boat ramps, birding spots and bike trails.
Nationwide, the valuable conservation resource has disbursed more than $10 billion for buying and protecting some 5 million acres, including land in national parks. In an attempt to rally support for its reauthorization in September, The Sierra Club called LWCF “the most important conservation law you’ve never heard of.”
Though reauthorization bills approved in House and in Senate committees have bipartisan support — South Carolina Republicans Rep. Mark Sanford and Sen. Lindsey Graham included — they have yet to be scheduled for floor votes as Congress struggles to pass a budget before the end of the session. Both bills would allocate at least $10 million per year to the LWCF to continue its mission.
If no action is taken, LWCF funding flowing from offshore oil leases, about $2.5 million per day, would go to the Treasury Department instead. But that revenue, derived from public natural resources, should benefit the public.
Before its expiration in September, the fight over LWCF reauthorization became a political football in part because some lawmakers have opposed the expansion of public lands. That shouldn’t preclude a compromise, however.
Fiscal conservatives ought to support the LWCF it because it has no impact on the federal budgets. And it merits even broader support among environmentalists, outdoor recreation groups and land conservation organizations.
It makes sense to plow money derived from extracting natural resources back into protecting our natural environment and expanding recreational opportunities. And protecting public lands is a smart investment, with the outdoor recreation industry contributing an estimated $887 billion to the U.S. economy and supporting 7.6 million jobs, according to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association.
In South Carolina, outdoor recreational spending is estimated at $16.3 billion annually, which supports about 151,000 jobs, $4.6 billion in wages and $1.1 billion in local and state taxes, according to the advocacy group Save LWCF.
The fund also supports the state’s forestry industry through its Forest Legacy Program, which provides matching grants for maintaining working forests and wildlife habitats, land purchases and conservation easements.
The LWCF is a vital national program for supporting local conservation, and lawmakers should move quickly to reauthorize it.