Barely 24 hours after Pope Francis appealed to U.S. lawmakers to help protect “our common home,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) announced that he intends this week to kill the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is known as America’s best parks program. The move — which is expected to succeed — places dozens of U.S. national parks at heightened risk of commercial development, including Grand Teton National Park and Gettysburg National Military Park.
The LWCF is a budget-neutral program that uses fees from offshore oil and gas development to fund national, state, and local conservation projects. Although the program enjoys widespread bipartisan support, it is scheduled to expire on Wednesday, September 30.
In a press release Friday, Bishop, who serves as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, promised to block all attempts to save the program unless significant changes are made to its structure to prevent the federal government from protecting additional land. “Under my chairmanship, the status quo will be challenged,” said Bishop in the release.
In his statement Friday, Bishop did not outline what specific changes he would like to see. In July, 2014, however, Bishop wrote that the LWCF should be transformed into a program to pay for “the education of future American energy industry workers” and to “help local governments.”
In addition to helping create tens of thousands of local parks and outdoor recreation projects, LWCF is the only source of funding the U.S. government is able to use to purchase pockets of unprotected land within park borders, known as inholdings. Bishop has long been a vocal opponent of using LWCF funds to purchase inholdings, telling a reporter in March that “there’s no way in hell I am going to allow you just to spend that to buy the inholdings they’re talking about or to expand the footprint of the federal government.”
However, the practice of purchasing inholdings helps protect national parks from development, reduce maintenance costs and improve management. A recent analysis by the Center for Western Priorities found that LWCF has protected 2.2 million acres of America’s national parks since it was created. However, 43 percent of all national parks across 44 states are still at “potential risk of development because of unprotected private lands within park boundaries.” If LWCF is not renewed, plans to protect these national parks will be deferred, putting several iconic landscapes in danger of private development in the coming year.
At Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, for example, the National Park Service (NPS) is intending to protect an Underground Railroad site within the park’s boundaries. The NPS notes that LWCF funds are urgently needed to complete the purchase because there is “intense pressure to commercially develop privately owned lands in and around Gettysburg National Military Park.”
At Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the NPS is scheduled to use LWCF funds to purchase 640 acres of state-owned land in 2016. According to the NPS, the area is at risk of “the development of these lands into further resort housing, or by individuals for trophy homes [which] will destroy the integrity of the open space, the wildlife habitat and the migration corridors of the landscape.”
Although the idea of building a mansion in the middle of a National Park seems farfetched, these inholdings of land within national parks have been developed into luxury homes in the past.
“If a willing property owner wants to sell his or her inholding to the National Park Service and protect the land for future generations, the only source of funding available to make the purchase is the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” the Center for Western Priorities wrote earlier this month. “Unless Congress acts, LWCF will expire on September 30, 2015, leaving no way for our national parks to continue to be made whole.”
Last week, 30 Republican members of Congress joined governors, mayors, administration officials and their colleagues in supporting reauthorization of LWCF. In a letter to Speaker John Boehner, the Republican representatives emphasized that the program “remains the premier federal program to conserve our nation’s land, water, historic, and recreation heritage,” and asked the Speaker for “help in identifying and securing a legislative path forward for LWCF.”
While there appears to be support for reauthorizing LWCF, Bishop’s statements make it unlikely that the program will be renewed by Wednesday as part of an agreement to prevent a government shutdown.
Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser. Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter @MLeeAshley.