Senate Passes Permanent LWCF Reauthorization in Energy Reform Bill

Last week, the Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012), which included a deal to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Spearheaded by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the Senate’s work represents exciting progress towards updating LWCF and ensuring long-term investment in this integral part of US conservation and recreation efforts.

In addition to permanently reauthorizing LWCF, the deal brokered between Murkowski and Cantwell calls for a minimum allocation of 40 percent of total LWCF funds to go to a suite of state conservation programs. This “stateside suite” matches the minimum percentage currently in place for federal land acquisition through LWCF.

While this takes a much-needed first step at recognizing the importance of state-specific programs within LWCF, more could be done to increase funding for LWCF State and Local Assistance grants. These grants, which are now one of several programs jockeying for funding under this 40 percent stateside suite, are integral in providing states and local communities with the resources they need for close-to-home park and recreational planning.

Historically, however, the State and Local Assistance grants have been woefully underfunded, receiving a paltry 12.5 percent of total annual LWCF appropriations over the last decade. As a result, very little funding has been allocated to local communities for park planning and development in recent years, with even less going to the urban core, which often lack adequate access to outdoor space or the resources needed to plan and develop it.

The new 40 percent minimum allocation for the stateside suite of programs not only includes State and Local Assistance grants, but it also includes the Forest Legacy program, the Cooperative Endangered Species program, and the American Battlefields program.  This means that several worthy programs that support conservation on the state and local level are vying for funding within the newly created 40 percent minimum allocation.

Thus, if annual LWCF appropriations remain similar to what they’ve been in recent years, State and Local Assistance grants are unlikely to receive much of an increase, if any.

Forest Legacy, the Cooperative Endangered Species program, and the American Battlefields program are all critical to U.S. conservation efforts and cannot be overlooked when it comes to funding. However, the original intent of LWCF was to preserve land for recreational purposes. In order to ensure communities have the resources they need to plan and develop close-to-home parks and green space, it is imperative that Congress increases funding specifically for LWCF’s State and Local Assistance grants.

Next Steps for the Energy Bill

At the end of last year, The House passed the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015 (H.R. 8). While significantly different from the Senate’s S. 2012, the two bills are similar enough that the House and the Senate can work to mesh the two bills together into one final package through a conference process.

H.R. 8 does not currently include any language pertaining to LWCF, so if Congress chooses to keep a reauthorization in the final bill, they will start with the Senate agreement.  n conference, there is room for negotiation, meaning members of Congress can attempt to make changes to the current language.

The progress the Senate has made towards permanently reauthorizing LWCF is incredibly exciting. This is a program that enjoys broad bipartisan support, and it has been the backbone of U.S. recreation and conservation efforts for over 50 years.

As the process moves forward, members of Congress can further strengthen the law by ensuring LWCF dollars are making their way down to local communities for close-to-home park planning and development. To this end, APA is working with partner organizations to urge legislators to increase the level of funding for State and Local Assistance grants. In addition, we are encouraging Congress to set aside a portion of LWCF funding to support park and recreational planning specifically in urban communities, as these communities are often underserved when it comes to access to green space and recreational opportunities.

Given the truncated legislative calendar this election year, it remains to be seen if Congress will be able to produce a final package that includes a permanent and updated reauthorization of LWCF. Sen. Murkowski has said she hopes to have a final bill passed by both houses and sent to the President before Congress leaves town in July.

April 26, 2016

By Kirsten Holland