Conserving the great outdoors: Conservation fund has ended, some want it back permanently
DETROIT LAKES -- Outdoor projects in northwest Minnesota like Sucker Creek Preserve, Dunton Locks Park, Hungry Man Lake Campground, Lake Park City Park, Wolf Lake's Waterfront Recreation Area and more may never have happened had it not been for t...
DETROIT LAKES - Outdoor projects in northwest Minnesota like Sucker Creek Preserve, Dunton Locks Park, Hungry Man Lake Campground, Lake Park City Park, Wolf Lake’s Waterfront Recreation Area and more may never have happened had it not been for the national Land and Water Conservation Fund.
And that’s just on the local level. The fund has also helped finance nationally-known destinations such as the Grand Canyon National Park to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in some form or another.
Now, due to politics, that 50-year long fund has a sunset and some people are making some noise, trying to get Congress to reinstate it.
“The nation’s most successful conservation program is in jeopardy,” Sally Hausken of Detroit Lakes said.
“Congress erred in not renewing it, but they can correct that,” North Country Trail Association’s Regional Trail Coordinator Matthew Davis said.
History of the fund
“The best thing I can say about the Land and Water Conservation Fund is many people say it’s the best conservation program in the history of the United States,” Davis said.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created 50 years ago and was to have $900 million a year in offshore drilling royalties deposited into the fund.
“They (U.S. Congress) figured that everyone had a piece of owning that mineral resource off the coast, so let’s turn around and put that money toward conservation that benefits all Americans,” Davis said.
But, that $900 million only happened once in the 50 years of the fund’s existence. Instead, government used the funds for other things, taken as an IOU that never got repaid.
“Even though the fact that it hasn’t been fully funded, it still had an amazing impact,” Davis said.
During its 50-year lifespan, the fund helped with projects in all 50 states, supporting more than 41,000 state and local park projects. Because of the nature of the fund, it held a strong bipartisan support.
Minnesota has received about $237 million over the 50 years with monies going to areas like Voyageurs National Park, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and St. Croix National Scenic River.
“The fact that it’s had this amazing impact basically at no cost to taxpayers. It’s using money that comes into the federal government from something other than taxes we pay,” Davis said. “It’s from selling this mineral resource that we all own together.”
While the national and even state parks and recreation areas are important, it’s the smaller, more local parks that have also benefited from the conservation fund and will now be hurt the worst.
“It’s brought about $73 million to the state that would not have come otherwise,” Joe Hiller said. Hiller serves as the park grant coordinator for the DNR division of parks and trails. “And, because it requires a 50-50 matching grant, it has leveraged an equal or greater amount of local funds.”
He added that the federal fund is the only funding source for smaller communities so now, without those federal funds, it will just be the local funds, which obviously pale in comparison to federal monies.
“It’s going to make it more difficult,” Davis said. “If you look at it in our neck of the woods, where we sit here at the edge of the prairie, there’s obviously a lot of interest in trying to preserve what little prairie is left for things like ducks, pheasants, butterflies. Prairie is so endangered now as an ecosystem.
“It’s going to be tougher now for partners to preserve what remnants are left without having Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
Aside from being able to do these projects, the conservation fund also gave smaller towns the ability to pull together and use all funding resources.
“The good thing about Land and Water Conservation (Fund) is those grants that local entities get, they have to provide their own matching funds,” Davis said. “It’s really been able to accomplish a lot more than just the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It gets multiplied.”
Many people support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, he said, because it’s such a bipartisan topic. There have been polls to prove this.
For about the last five years or so, he said, the LWCF Coalition has existed and it’s interesting to see that various groups have come together under the coalition to rally for the permanent, full funding of the conservation fund.
Those groups are hoping that will resonate with Congress, showing that it’s not just the opinion of one group or one type of group, it’s more far reaching.
“It’s too bad when success stories come to an end,” Davis said.
Hiller said there has been a push back for the conservation fund because it has been used to acquire federal lands, and with tight budgets in Washington, some people think the funds could be used somewhere other than outdoor recreation, he added.
“There’s a good possibility it could come back,” he said of the LWCF. “In fact, there’s a lot of activity in Congress right now to get it restarted, but it’s a political decision.”
“There are a whole bunch of bills but they are not permanent, they just extend it,” Hausken said, who said that she has contacted Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar and Collin Peterson’s offices. “Some are for permanent, and we want permanent.”
She said many of the bills also include shutting the conservation fund down for good, intending for the states to pick up the extra funding needs.
“We don’t want that. That would be foolish,” she said.
“Congress needs to get its act together,” Davis said on restoring the LWCF. “Who knows if that will happen.”
Without the LWCF, the funding burden falls on individual states instead of federal government. In Minnesota, with the Legacy Fund, there are possibilities, but there are states with no funds like the Legacy Fund.
And even the Legacy Fund is restrictive. Hiller said the state can only fund about one in every eight applications for Legacy Funds.
The portion of the Legacy Fund that could be used for the great outdoors, the Parks and Trails Fund, is dedicated to parks that have a regional significance, so local parks would be out of luck on funding.
But, Minnesota also has a track record for using other funding sources to complete needed projects.
“They have used funding from the Future Resources Fund, which came from the cigarette taxes. They’ve used some from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is the lottery. They have used some from the general fund, and they have used some bonding funds over the years,” Hiller said. “But those have kind of dried up now, and the only source coming out of the state legislature is the Legacy Fund.”
The Legacy Fund, which was voter approved several years ago, will run a total of 25 years. Because those funds have to be used for regional significance, smaller parks would not qualify. They would, however, qualify for the national LWCF, Hiller said.
Because the smaller parks wouldn’t qualify for the Parks and Trails Legacy grant money, the last several years, he said the state has reserved its LWCF allotment to help the smaller towns and parks with their funding needs.
“Every year, Congress makes available a certain amount of funds available to the states and each state turns it into a grant program. If the national legislation is not reauthorized, that would be the end of it. There would be no more funding coming,” Hiller said.
Davis said people need to reach out to their Congressional representatives and ask them to support the reinstatement of the conservation fund.
“This is one of those programs that we’re not adding to the problems of Washington, and it’s not trying to use our tax dollars for everything under the sun. This is dedicated money that’s coming from a different source,” Davis said.