WASHINGTON – The popular Land and Water Conservation Fund would be extensively reworked to focus more spending on local recreation projects and maintenance of existing federal holdings while severely limiting new land acquisitions, under a Republican proposal to be introduced Thursday.
The long-awaited legislation introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, comes more than a month after the authorization for the 50-year-old fund expired at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
It is certain to anger outdoor, conservation and environmental groups who had blamed Bishop for sidetracking what they consider to be the federal government’s most important conservation and recreation program.
These groups had pushed for a permanent reauthorization using the existing structure for the fund, which has provided $17 billion for everything from expanding national parks and forests to more than 40,000 local recreation projects. About $10.4 billion of the total has been spent to buy 5 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West.
While the fund is authorized at $900 million per year, far less is usually appropriated, including about $300 million last year.
Bishop’s legislation would maintain the same authorization level and would extend the fund for just seven years. Among other changes, the bill would:
–increase to not less than 45 percent the portion of funds designated for the Stateside Assistance Grant Program, which helps pay for local recreation projects. Bishop argues this shift will return the fund to its original focus, which was local projects. Over the lifetime of the fund, some $4.5 billion – about 25 percent – has been spent on local projects.
–create a new program to provide grants of up to $2 million for cities to build and maintain recreational facilities, with priority given to economically disadvantaged communities.
–limit federal land and water acquisition to not more than 3.5 percent. Only in-holdings – land that abuts existing federal land – could be purchased. And no more than 15 percent of the acreage could be west of the 100th meridian, which runs from North Dakota through South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
–promote offshore energy exploration to ensure the stability of the offshore royalties that provide the revenue for the land and water fund. At least 20 percent of the fund’s annual allotment would go toward establishing pilot offices to streamline offshore permits and to establish an Offshore Energy Technology Hub to foster collaboration among regulators, academia and industry.
Not more than 3.5 percent of the fund would go toward reducing the $18.8 billion maintenance backlog on federally managed land. Conservatives have argued the federal government shouldn’t be acquiring additional land when it can’t maintain what it already owns.
And at least 15 percent of the annual fund would go toward the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which provides support to communities that lose tax revenue because a large percentage of the surrounding land is government owned and therefore tax-exempt.
Bishop is planning to hold the first hearing on his bill on Nov. 18.
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