For over 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has preserved nationally significant lands across the country from development. Congress recently voted to permanently authorize this program — but it still needs dependable funding.
Last February, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Natural Resources Management Act, a package of more than 100 bipartisan bills that helped expand and improve America’s public lands, including our national parks. Among the legislation’s many important achievements, it permanently authorized a program known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund that has been protecting significant lands from development since lawmakers first established it in 1965.
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This move underscored the bipartisan support for this important federal program but lacked one vital component: a commitment of money. Though there are countless opportunities for land protection, the program has only been funded once at the full amount allowed by Congress. For the program to continue to prevent private companies and individual landowners from building subdivisions, stores and other modern structures inside park boundaries, we need Congress to take the next step and ensure a dedicated stream of funding for this vital program.
How the program works
When national parks and other public lands are created, some parcels inside the park boundaries sometimes remain privately owned, leaving them vulnerable to incompatible developments, such as trophy homes, mini-marts and other uses that would change the landscape’s character and visitor experience. Because these are some of the most beautiful and historic landscapes in the country and national parks drive significant tourism revenue, the pressure to develop these private lands can be intense.
When Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it authorized spending up to $900 million each year to acquire these lands at fair market value from willing sellers by using a small percentage of the revenue generated by offshore oil and gas leasing to fund the purchases. The program has been underfunded for most of its 54 years, despite its track record of success. In recent years, the program has received only about half of the total amount authorized.
These five recent park acquisitions were made possible by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Mojave National Preserve, California
This California park is part of one of the largest and most diverse protected areas of desert lands in the world, giving wildlife room to migrate and providing sensitive species like mountain lions and Joshua trees the ability to adapt to a changing climate. In 2015, four federal agencies including the National Park Service worked with the Mojave Desert Land Trust to acquire more than 3,000 acres within and adjacent to wilderness areas, helping to maintain these intact, connected landscapes and restore habitats that had become degraded.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia
In 2001, developers were ready to pave over Murphy Farm, a 99-acre tract with strategic significance in the 1862 Civil War battle at Harpers Ferry and that later played a role in a 1906 meeting of early civil rights activists that led to the creation of the NAACP. The Park Service used money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2002 to purchase the property and save the farm from becoming a 200-home residential complex. Subsequent LWCF funding beginning in 2004 protected hundreds of acres on Schoolhouse Ridge, one of three key strategic plateaus used during the battle. These lands and their history now are permanently protected as part of the park.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
This park is known for its majestic mountain views along the Snake River and its abundance of wildlife. But when the state of Wyoming announced that it intended to sell two parcels of land it owned within the park to raise money for its schools, key wildlife habitats were at risk of falling into the hands of private developers. NPCA and our partners worked with state and federal agencies for years to come to a fair agreement and help secure funding for the transaction. Thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Park Service was able to acquire 640 acres of land in the scenic Antelope Flats region of the park in 2016 so that bear, elk, moose, wolves and pronghorn can continue to call the area home.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
The beaches, bluffs, forests and namesake dunes define this beloved vacation spot along the Lake Michigan coast. Development pressure in this area is significant, however, and in 2014, the Land and Water Conservation Fund helped the Park Service acquire 425 acres of beachfront and wooded lands within the park to prevent private landowners from building trophy homes and marring the landscape and character of the park.
Little River Canyon National Preserve, Alabama
This hidden gem near the Georgia and Tennessee borders preserves the most extensive canyon system of the Cumberland Plateau, including one of the deepest river gorges east of the Mississippi. Since the 1990s, however, private landowners have built homes near the boundary of the preserve, encroaching on the natural landscape. In 2009, lawmakers expanded the park boundary to protect the canyon view, and in 2016, the Park Service used money appropriated from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire the land and preserve 89 acres in this vulnerable area from additional development.
These are just a sample of the many successes this important program has made possible. Thousands of vulnerable acres at more than a dozen national park sites could use this help now, from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota to El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico to Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia. Lawmakers have introduced bills in both chambers of Congress to dedicate the needed funding to this vital program — now we need Congress to recognize the importance of these lands and pass these bills.
NPCA will continue working with partners and lawmakers around the country to build on the recent bipartisan support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the program’s track record protecting irreplaceable sites for future generations.
About the authors
John Garder Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations, Government Affairs
John Garder is Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations at NPCA. He is a budget analyst and researcher who advocates for more adequate funding for national parks to diverse audiences, including Congress, the White House, and the Department of the Interior.
Joy M. Oakes Senior Regional Director, Mid-Atlantic
Joining NPCA in 2001, Joy serves as the Senior Regional Director of the Mid-Atlantic, overseeing NPCA’s activities in the region’s five states and the District of Columbia.