A $900 million annual federal program for public land projects and conservation is set to expire Sept. 30 unless Congress votes to reauthorize it. From community parks and pools to the Boise Greenbelt, dollars from the fund contribute to the creation and expansions of public spaces.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established by Congress in 1964 to redirect royalties from off-shore and gas drilling toward outdoor and recreation programs. Initially authorized for 25 years, the program has been extended twice and is due to expire this month.
Members of Idaho’s congressional delegation have been working to reauthorize the program. Thursday, the House Committee on Natural Resources moved forward with a bill entitled the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, which permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In addition to funding projects, the program also pays for conservation easements given to private property owners to restrict development and allow public access to lands and waterways. Since establishment, the program has covered nearly $280 million worth of projects and easements in Idaho to date
Hollie Conde, development and communications manager for the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, said no new land projects would happen without the money that comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“It affects so many different projects,” Conde said. “Little things like neighborhood parks all the way up to the Grand Canyon.”
Idaho public lands benefit from the fund. Idaho’s $7.8 billion outdoor recreation industry creates 78,000 jobs and produces $447 million annually in state and local tax revenue, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
From 1964 to 2011, Ada County received nearly $5.6 million in funding for public spaces from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Canyon County just under $950,000.
The biggest projects in those years include six installments of development to the Boise Greenbelt totaling over $950,000 and over $300,000 in funding for Brothers Park in Caldwell.
On Memorial Day, the city of Middleton debuted its new “splash pad” at Piccadilly Park. The $148,500 project was funded with grant money from the conservation fund through Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.
Becky Crofts, Middleton city clerk who handles grant writing, said that the city would have had to have saved for years to fund these types of projects itself.
“Being a small, rural community, that type of funding is extremely important for us,” Crofts said. “If that type of funding goes away, that puts a hardship on the residents to be able to have the things that bigger cities have that we can’t.”
The city of Boise is applying for $250,000 of conservation fund grant money to build the largest pickleball complex in the Treasure Valley at Hobble Creek Park, according to parks superintendent Jennifer Tomlinson. The grant would cover nearly half of the $510,000 total cost.
The fund has been around for so long, Conde said, that it would be hard to tell what public parks and spaces would look like without it.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, spearheaded the crafting of a legislative package that includes reauthorization and guarantees funding to the program. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah with Democrat Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona are the lead sponsors.
The original bill extended the funding program through 2024. Of the estimated total $900 million in offshore drilling revenues, $450 million would be solely directed to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with the remaining subject to appropriation.
Simpson is confident that splitting offshore revenues between the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which compensates counties for loss of property tax revenue for federal lands, will solve more than one issue in Congress.
“I think it will get reauthorized because there’s an awful lot of people in Congress that see the benefit of the fund in their communities,” Simpson told the Idaho Press.
Simpson said he has support other members of the Idaho congressional delegation except for Rep. Raúl Labrador, for whom Simpson couldn’t speak.
Labrador was not at the committee hearing on Sept. 13, according to the committee markup. He declined further comment.
Some land groups have expressed concern about what could happen should the fund not be reauthorized.
Craig Gehrke, Idaho regional director for the Wilderness Society, said that if the offshore drilling revenue doesn’t have federal funding programs to be directed to, Congress might appropriate the funds elsewhere, leaving public lands conservation in a “food fight.”
“Congress promised $900 million every year to the public from offshore oil leasing,” said Gehrke said. “If funds become appropriated, public lands will slip further and further down in priorities.”
A campaign for action has been launched by conservation groups, both state and federal, to urge Congress toward reauthorization. Partners include the Idaho Coalition of Land Trusts, Idaho Wildlife Federation and the Idaho Conservation League. The city of Boise has also partnered in the coalition.
“It’s not based on the merits of the program,” Gehrke said. “It’s based on Congress standing up for it.”