Photo By Erik Ringsmuth

Sustaining and Improving the Land and Water Conservation Fund

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Whether it’s packing lunch and hitting the trail or grabbing a rod and reel and floating the river, more and more people are finding enjoyment in America’s proverbial backyard. While more time spent out of doors is largely a boon, it comes with a cost.

In 2017, 146.1 million Americans ages 6 and over, or nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population, participated in outdoor recreation — including hiking, hunting, skiing and more — at least once, marking an increase of 1.7 million people from the previous year, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2018 Outdoor Participation Report. That same year, the National Park Service reported hosting nearly 331 million visitors and the Bureau of Land Management over 67 million.

Annually, state fish and wildlife agencies have a collective budget of $5.63 billion and oversee nearly half a billion acres of land and 167 million acres of water, according to a report published by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. These funds, which are allocated for state conservation efforts such as wildlife management and habitat restoration, come from a variety of sources — both at the federal and state levels.

Combined, hunters and anglers are responsible for 59 percent of all state-sponsored conservation funding in the U.S.

One significant source comes from the sale of state hunting and fishing licenses, which account for 35 percent of fish and wildlife agencies’ total budget. Runner up to license sales is federal funds allocated by the Pittman-Robertson Act. Passed in 1937, the law created an excise tax on hunting goods, including firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. The tax accounts for 15 percent of the $5.63 billion. Similar to Pittman-Robertson and enacted in 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act taxes only fishing equipment and makes up 9 percent of total funding for state agencies.

Combined, hunters and anglers are responsible for 59 percent of all state-sponsored conservation funding in the U.S.

Perhaps a reaction to the fact that sportsmen alone do not benefit from the conservation and protection of public land, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created and signed into law by Congress in 1964 and enacted in 1965. Using revenue from offshore oil and gas leases — not taxpayer dollars — the legislation was designed to set aside $900 million each year for conservation.

With appropriations often diverted by Congress, however, the LWCF has been severely underfunded for the vast majority of its existence and has only been fully funded twice in its history, resulting in a backlog of projects. According to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, this includes acquiring lands to protect the Florida Everglades, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Civil War battlefields in Virginia. But as of 2018, less than half of the $40 billion accrued in the LWCF — $18.4 billion — had been appropriated, according to a report published by the Congressional Research Service.

The LWCF has been severely underfunded for the vast majority of its existence and has only been fully funded twice in its history.

According to Margaret A. Walls of the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, “Between 1965 and 2017, [Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson] generated almost twice as much total funding for states as the LWCF — $29.7 billion versus $15.7 billion (in 2017 dollars).”

With an original term of 25 years then a renewal for 25 more, the LWCF was extended in 2015 for an additional three. But, at the end of September, it is set to expire.

Critics of the LWCF argue that the continued purchasing of land by the federal government will simply increase the amount of land to maintain without addressing the issue of covering the cost of such maintenance; the National Parks Service’s maintenance backlog is nearly $12 billion in the hole, for example. It is estimated that in order to avoid falling even further behind, Congress must appropriate $700 million a year to cover such upkeep. Currently, it only allocates $521 million.

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Michael Vollman
Michael Vollman is a creative professional whose passion for hunting, fishing and hiking lands him in the outdoors regularly, but — he would argue — not nearly enough. Although he wasn’t born an outdoorsman, the occasional camping trip with the family, summer vacations to the Great Smoky Mountains and a hunting trip or two with dad were enough to instill in him a call to the out-of-doors. This calling has led to his interest in and desire to not only spend time in the wild but also do what he can to protect it.

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