Groups seek hike in Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars
Washington — Each year, Congress sets aside money derived from royalties paid by companies that drill for off-shore oil and gas, for conservation and public recreation purposes. And each year, conservation groups and others wonder where it all went.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in the 1960s, is the destination for $900 million each year. Usually, however, the vast majority of that funding is diverted elsewhere, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.
This time around, conservation groups are more optimistic, as a Senate bill would assure $700 million each of the next two years would be spent for the intended purposes, with a portion likely used to protect Dakota prairie wetlands and grasslands in permanent easements, a need considered dire by groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited.
Members of those groups talked last Thursday about the need to protect the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area, which includes the heralded Prairie Pothole Region.
“The Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area project would accelerate the conservation of native prairie and wetlands within the PPR of North and South Dakota,” said Paul Schmidt, chief conservation officer with DU. “We need to act quickly to protect this severely threatened ecosystem while preserving the working landscape of ranching and livestock operations.”
The loss of wetlands and grasslands in the eastern Dakotas where some of the Midwest’s favorite game birds are produced hasn’t shown signs of slowing, and for a number of good reasons, according to John Cooper, former secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. Commodity prices remain high, advancements in crop technology make plants more hearty, and federal farm policy takes much of the risk away from agricultural producers.
“In my 40 years of experience, I don’t know if we’ve been at a more critical time in wetlands and grasslands conservation in the Prairie Pothole Region,” Cooper said during a conference call.
The LWCF has a broad range of uses, everything from creating state parks and trails to preserving wildlife habitat to protecting historical sites. Partnerships are formed, and groups and agencies match each fund dollar with one of their own. Dave Nomsen, government affairs vice president with Pheasants Forever, said permanent easements in the prairie region of the Dakotas are just one of the many options.
According to a press statement from the LWCF Coalition, “The House and Senate are currently in negotiations to iron out the differences between two versions of a Transportation bill in the hope of finding agreement on a final bill before June 30.
“The Senate’s version of the bill ensures that funds authorized for the Land and Water Conservation Fund are used for their intended purposes in each of the next two years and permanently commits 1.5 percent of
LWCF to ‘making public lands public’ projects that provide public access for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.”
The coalition also points out the following:
- LWCF is already paid for, in that each year $900 million is deposited into the LWCF from the billions of dollars the Treasury Department collects from off-shore drilling and other federal energy revenue sources.
- The Senate language expressly states that any land bought with LWCF dollars will be from willing sellers.
- Senate language would make more land available to the public.
About the Dakota Grasslands project
An ambitious project involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, private landowners, state game and fish agencies, and conservation organizations, the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area project seeks to conserve 240,000 acres of wetlands and 1.7 million acres of grasslands, primarily through easements purchased from landowners.
Such easements would protect the native prairies and wetlands from drainage and conversion to agriculture, but land owners would retain acess and usage rights.
Schmidt said the easements are a popular option for landowners in the Dakotas – if the funds are available.
Currently, he said, there’s a backlog of 900 landowners seeking wetland or grassland easements, which includes a total of about 400,000 acres. In North Dakota and South Dakota today, more than 5,000 landowners have sold perpetual easements to the USFWS, including nearly 1 million acres.
The DGCA, officials say, is an extention of President Obama’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative.
More about LWCF
A bump to $700 million for the next couple years would be considered significant, given past levels far below that amount.
In fact, according to the LWCF Coalition, “In 2011, the Department of the Interior collected approximately $6.5 billion from offshore energy production, but only $301 million went toward LWCF and the programs LWCF funds.”
However, the coalition says, “Despite chronic underfunding, LWCF has had positive conservation and recreation impacts throughout our country. Over its 46-year history, LWCF has protected land in every state and supported over 41,000 state and local park projects.”
According to the Minnesota DNR, the state has received almost $70 million through the LWCF since 1965. These days, half of that money is used to supplement state funding for three grant programs available to local units of government; the other half is allocated to state agencies for statewide facilities, including state parks, historical interpretive sites, state trails, wildlife management areas, and water access sites.
Each federal dollar must be matched by an LGU or state dollar.
“In general, LWCF money spent by the state has to be (used for) part of the state outdoor recreation program,” according to Audrey Mularie, a DNR grant manager.
The LWCF Coalition says another $100 million has been spent by federal agencies on national parks, forests, and refuges in the state.
For federal fiscal year 2011, the state of Minnesota received about $650,000 for use by state agencies and local units of government, which typically use the funds to acquire and develop parks, playgrounds, and other outdoor recreational facilities.