Federal conservation money for iconic parks in jeopardy

In this September 2012 photo, a cloud hovers over Mount Rainier at sunset in a view from Klapatche Park Camp at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.
In this September 2012 photo, a cloud hovers over Mount Rainier at sunset in a view from Klapatche Park Camp at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The News Tribune via AP

A 50-year-old government fund that’s helped preserve Mount Rainier National Park, historical sites in the San Juan Islands, and the Mountains to Sound Greenway in Washington state is in danger of disappearing because of funding disputes in Congress.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has paid for $637 million in conservation and recreation projects in Washington state, and nearly $17 billion in work across the nation ranging from the Gettysburg civil war battlefield to the Grand Canyon to the Florida Everglades.

The money comes from royalties that oil companies pay the government for offshore drilling rights, not with taxpayer dollars. But the fund is set to expire Sept. 30 unless reauthorized by Congress – and with Congress on vacation until Sept. 8 the chances are not looking good.

“There’s a risk that the program will expire, at least for a period of time,” said Rosemarie Calabro Tully, spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Cantwell is leading an effort to save the fund and has joined with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in a bill calling for a permanent reauthorization.

Among the projects that Cantwell cited in an interview are the preservation of 5,000 acres along the Skagit River near Bellingham with fishing access sites and historical encampments from a 19th century conflict in the San Juan Islands between the Americans and British.

There are also projects that were completed with dollars from the fund and matching money from local or state agencies, including Tacoma’s Kandle Park Aquatics Center, Bellingham’s Whatcom Creek trail and the Mt. Baker Rowing and Sailing Center in Seattle.

The Cantwell-Murkowski bill to renew the fund passed the committee but would need to make it through the full Senate and the House to become law. And House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has objections with how the fund operates.

“Chairman Bishop believes the Land Water Conservation Fund needs to be reformed,” said spokeswoman Julia Bell Slingsby. “Right now, too much of the fund is being used to acquire more and more land for the federal government.

“This is foolish because the federal government cannot even properly maintain the land it has now,” she said.

Bishop prefers to see such money go to state and local governments and is planning to look at “an array of options” for the fund’s future, Bell said.

Cantwell, asked about the objection of the fund being used to add more federal land, said that “the hunters and fishermen in my area would say that if you can preserve the area for hunting and fishing and recreational opportunity, then people want to see that happen.”

The Cantwell-Murkowski bill would guarantee that at least 40 percent of the money from the fund goes to non-federal purposes including grants to states, but that’s not enough for some members of Congress. And the clock is ticking with lawmakers gone from Washington, D.C., on their summer break.

“I think for the most part people who are saying this needs to be reformed are really trying to say they want to get rid of it,” said Karin Frank, spokeswoman for the Washington Wildlife and Recreational Coalition, a nonprofit group founded by former Washington state governors Dan Evans and Mike Lowry.

Frank said about half the money from the fund in recent years has gone to the states and half of it to federal projects, a split that she called a fair balance.

“For wildlife refuges and national parks there really isn’t any other source of funding for these types of projects,” Frank said. “States and local municipalities do actually have other sources of funding.”

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham

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