For the past 50 years, oil and gas companies involved in offshore drilling have paid into a fund that has provided protection for the basalt formations in Riverside State Park, playground equipment at Friendship Park and countless conservation projects nationwide.
The inaction of Congress to maintain the fund prompted real estate, conservation, and hunting and fishing groups this week to lobby U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The group met at the downtown Spokane offices of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which dates to the Kennedy administration and was originally introduced by Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, will expire Sept. 30 without congressional action.
“We should be focused on getting this fund permanently authorized,” said Vlad Gutman, senior policy director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, which helped pull together the roundtable during McMorris Rodgers’ district visit while Congress is on August recess.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington has proposed such a permanent reauthorization in the past, with 25 Democratic senators co-sponsoring the measure. The bill, introduced last year, has remained mired in committee.
McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, called reauthorization a priority, but told the assembled group the details were still fuzzy. When they return, lawmakers will have a lot to deal with, including President Barack Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran and wildly different budget proposals from the White House and the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
“We have a lot on our plate,” McMorris Rodgers told the group.
Representatives from Spokane County, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the Dishman Hills Conservancy, the Inland Northwest Trails Coalition and other groups gathered to pitch the benefits of the program, which has twice before received emphatic support from Congress.
The amount energy companies pay annually for lease payments for offshore drilling hovers between $5 billion and $10 billion a year, according to a report from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. Of that, Congress has provided for up to $900 million to be allocated to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but has routinely appropriated far less than that.
Congress’ authorization would ensure that offshore drilling continues to fund future projects without interruption. Supporters point to successes such as conservation of Riverside State Park and the Dishman Hills Natural Area as the types of projects future money could support. Both projects benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund when they were created.
McMorris Rodgers told the group the funding would be important to improving access at Colville National Forest.
“My goal, moving forward, is to focus on locally driven projects,” McMorris Rodgers said.
She said critics of the fund have voiced concerns that money has been used to purchase preservation land, but then those lands are not maintained properly.
“We need to be making sure we do the follow-through,” said McMorris Rodgers, adding she believes maintenance has improved in recent years.
Stakeholders across the country have been lobbying federal lawmakers to reauthorize the fund. Earlier this week, surrounded by representatives of fishing and conservancy groups, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he believes Congress would authorize funding levels at the same $900 million cap through next year before more difficult discussions on spending during budget talks expected this fall, according to local news reports.
McMorris Rodgers said she, too, believes the fund could get tied up in budget negotiations.
Local supporters are stressing the effect the fund has on stimulating the economy.
Gutman said the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a unique tool that is needed to support Washington’s robust outdoor recreation industry.
“This is the only vehicle for projects” promoting access to federal forestland and preserving treasured wildlands, he said.