Congress poised to let Land and Water Conservation Fund expire

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A federal fund that has channeled billions of dollars into acquisition and development of public lands across the country — including beloved local landmarks like Trione-Annadel State Park, Goat Rock and Steelhead Beach — is set to expire Sunday after 53 years, despite a nationwide rallying cry in support of its reauthorization.

First established in 1965 through congressional act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a frequent source of needed funds by national, state and local governments and conservation agencies.

Funded primarily by a small cut of royalties collected from private companies through offshore oil and gas exploration leases, it has contributed to everything from the acquisition of national parklands to construction of ballfields and swimming pools in places like Rohnert Park and Sebastopol.

The fund is a “phenomenally important funding source for conservation in this county,” said Melanie Parker, assistant director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “It’s one of a handful of really critical state and federal funding sources.”

But after years of congressional wrangling over efforts to make it permanent, it appears the fund will expire Sunday, though there remains some possibility Congress later could revive it, said Jonathan Asher, senior government relations representative with The Wilderness Society.

North Coast Reps. Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, frequent champions of the act, are among the bipartisan supporters of its extension, bolstered by conservation and recreational interests around the country.

“Allowing this vital program to expire will not only put conservation on the line, but will also undermine the significant economic contributions of the growing outdoor recreation economy,” Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in news release Thursday.

But Republican congressional leaders have balked, in part on ideological grounds and general disagreement with the continued need for land acquisition, Asher said.

The fund’s imminent expiration has also raised its value as a legislative bargaining chip, he said.

“At this point, crazy things can happen,” Asher said Thursday. “But I think it’s at a point where we’re pretty much expecting expiration to happen on Sunday.”

Since its inception, the LWCF has supported at least 30 projects in Sonoma County, providing more than $7.8 million in funding.

A short list of park and open space projects that have benefited from the program over time include Robert Louis Stevenson and Salt Point state parks; Tolay Lake, Gualala Point, Hood Mountain, Maxwell Farms and Stillwater Cove regional parks; the Joe Rodota Trail; Luchessi Park in Petaluma; Sunrise Park in Rohnert Park; and the Healdsburg Municipal Swimming Pool.

Recent grants include $360,000 for construction of a trail segment in Bodega Bay, $250,000 toward acquisition of land for the Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve and $203,000 to acquire part of the Tolay Lake Ranch.

The recently opened Jenner Headlands Preserve on the Sonoma Coast — the single largest investment in public lands in county history — was purchased in part with $1 million from the Forest Legacy Program, a U.S. Forest Service program funded through the LWCF.

The fund also helped make possible the creation of the Point Arena-Stornetta unit of the California Coastal National Monument in 2014.

“If it expires, it means lost opportunities for projects like the Jenner Headlands that protect our iconic landscapes and provide outdoor recreation for the public,” said Wendy Eliot, conservation director for the Sonoma Land Trust, which originally took title to the preserve, later transferred to The Wildlands Conservancy.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund started as a bipartisan effort to protect and enhance land and water resources, and provide widespread public access for recreational purposes in an era of growing environmental awareness and concern about public health.

Congress has the discretion to appropriate up to $900 million annually from energy exploration receipts for the fund, though it has done so only twice. Congressional appropriations have varied greatly. The total spiked to $969 million in 1998, though typically it was closer to half that much and, often, lower, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The fund is the principal source of money for land purchases made by four federal agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. It is also a major source of funding for grants and matching grants used by state and local governments to purchase and develop recreational properties.

Initially adopted for 25 years, it was later extended for an additional 25 years, expiring in 2015. Efforts to establish a permanent fund as its sunset approached were unsuccessful, but a three-year extension to Sept. 30, 2018 was later adopted with the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Huffman, in 2015, characterized the fund as part of a bargain with the public to use energy exploration receipts to offset potential harms. If allowed to lapse, “then quite frankly, we should shutdown offshore drilling right now, until we can get to the point where honor the deal,” he said.

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