Since 1965, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect civil war battlefield sites, national parks and local recreation areas such the American River Parkway in Sacramento and Henry Lake in Idaho.
On Thursday, President Trump proposed a $120 million cut to the LWCF and other federal land acquisition programs, calling them “lower priority activities.”
That reduction was part of a 12 percent proposed cut to the Department of Interior, whose new secretary, Ryan Zinke, sought the office promising to increase access to the nation’s public lands. Two weeks ago, Zinke told Interior employees he was pushing back against White House proposals to strip down his department.
“I’m going to fight for the budget,” he said. “I’m not happy, but we’re going to fight about it and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.”
On Thursday, Zinke issued a news release suggesting he was comfortable with the proposed cuts, a small portion of government-wide reductions being used to finance a $54 billion boost in defense spending.
“I can say for certain that this budget allows the Interior Department to meet our core mission and also prioritizes the safety and security of the American people,” he said in a statement.
According to Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Interior Department official, the $120 million figure represents at least a 70 percent cut in the Land and Water Conservation Fund over current spending levels, already reduced by congressional sequestration.
Congress created the Land and Conservation Fund 52 years ago, making use of royalties that oil companies pay for off-shore drilling leases. By 2015, the fund had spent $17 billion nationwide, including $4.1 billion in matching grants to states and local governments that want to create parks and recreation sites.
Conservative groups have long called for down-scaling or eliminating the fund. In a report last year, the Heritage Foundation – a key adviser to the Trump administration – stated that “Congress should allow the LWCF to expire and enable more state and local government and private control of America’s land and water.”
Even so, Congress has continued to reauthorize the fund with bi-partisan support, although at lower spending levels than what supporters desire. In 2002, the fund distributed roughly $1 billion for land acquisition and state and local grants. By 2015, that number had dropped by more than 60 percent.
Supporters, including the Nature Conservancy, point to several “success stories” involving LWCF investments since 1965:
▪ $180 million for projects in Idaho, including protection of ranches near Henry’s Lake in the eastern part of Idaho, a gateway to Yellowstone National Park that is a prime area for potential development.
▪ $637 million for projects in Washington state, including preservation of lands at Mount Rainier National Park.
▪ $2 billion for projects in California, including several grants to acquire land and open facilities along the American River Parkway in Sacramento.
▪ $997 million for Florida, including $58 million over three years dedicated to the Florida Everglades.
▪ In 2016 alone, $1.6 million in grants to preserve land around civil war battlefields threatened by development in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina and other states.
Along with the Heritage Foundation, the Trump administration argues the federal government should spend more money on maintenance of existing parks instead of acquiring new parcels.
“The budget ensures National Park Service assets are preserved for future generations by increasing investment in deferred maintenance projects,” the Interior Department said in a news release.
Supporters counter that the conservation fund helps state and local governments build recreation facilities to make parkland more accessible to people, including those with disabilities.
Trump’s cuts could also make it harder for hunters and anglers to access public lands, said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The proposed cuts are “no way to support the rural and local economies that need outdoor recreation dollars most,” Fosburgh said in a statement.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth