Treasured landscapes are at risk as conservation funds are debated
Federal program to preserve land faces threat of funding cuts
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For years, conservation groups and government agencies wanted to protect the eagle habitat and sweeping views along Fones Cliffs as it rises from the Rappahannock River.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service even had a deal to buy the land and add it to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. But Congress never provided the $8.5 million in time to complete the purchase, and the deal expired.
“Instead, we have this mega-development coming in on top of the cliffs,” said Joel Dunn, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy, referring to a decision made by the Richmond County Board of Supervisors in November to rezone the property.
“That should be the poster child for why the Land and Water Conservation Fund is needed, and what happens when it is not available,” he said.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, is little known to most people, but it is the primary mechanism the federal government uses to buy land across the nation.
A series of decisions to be made by Congress and the administration in coming weeks will determine how much money the Bay region is likely to get from the fund not only for next year, but potentially for decades.
The Chesapeake region has fared poorly in competition for LWCF support, but its fortunes started to change early this year when the Obama administration proposed a 2016 budget that called for using almost $38 million from the LWCF to purchase land in the Bay watershed, primarily along its major tributaries.
Most of that, $33.3 million, was to support a new “Rivers of the Chesapeake” initiative that would help preserve large-scale landscapes along Bay tributaries in and around existing federal holdings, such as the Rappahannock River Valley and Blackwater national wildlife refuges. It would also protect tracts along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and even parcels far upstream on Bay tributaries in George Washington National Forest.
Another $4.5 million would help protect other tracts in the region, such as portions of Gettysburg National Military Park, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park and along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
In December, Congress will decide how much of the president’s request it will actually fund next year. It is unlikely to approve the administration’s full $900 million LWCF request — appropriations in recent years have been closer to $300 million.
How much money it approves will ultimately determine how many Bay region projects are funded. Dunn said the recent budget compromise, which approved $40 billion in additional domestic spending for the coming year, could result in more projects being funded. “It could have ramifications for the Chesapeake depending on what type of deal Congress ultimately strikes,” he said.
Meanwhile, regional supporters are looking ahead to next year and urging the administration to include at least as much funding for the Rivers of the Chesapeake in its 2017 budget, and to extend the initiative up the Susquehanna River into Pennsylvania.
“These lands celebrate our region’s history, they provide recreational opportunities, they provide wildlife habitat for Chesapeake Bay species, they protect scenic views and protect our irreplaceable landscapes,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a vocal proponent of the initiative, said at the July Chesapeake Executive Council meeting.
The governors of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware have all urged support, as has much of the region’s congressional delegation, dozens of conservation groups and more than half a dozen American Indian tribes.
Supporters say the initiative could have a dramatic impact on the federal government’s ability to help protect highly valued lands, and improve public access around the Chesapeake, as well as play an important role in helping meet a Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement goal to protect an additional 2 million acres of land by 2025.
But the future of the fund itself is also up for debate.
The authorization for the LWCF expired at the end of September, and while it has widespread support, some lawmakers want to see federal land purchases curbed if the program is extended.
Congress created the fund in 1965 to preserve land and promote outdoor recreation opportunities, primarily using royalties from oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf. Although it is authorized to spend $900 million a year, Congress has only funded it at that level twice.
About half of the LWCF appropriation goes to federal land acquisition, while a quarter generally goes to states for land and recreation grants, with the rest supporting conservation easements on private forest land and endangered species grants.
In the Senate, a measure by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, and Maria Cantwell, D-WA, that would reauthorize the fund with only minor changes has been advancing.
But in the House, Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-UT, is pushing a bill that would increase funding to states, largely eliminate federal land acquisition, and use LWCF money to support activities related to offshore oil and gas permitting and workforce development.
Opposition to the LWCF is strong among some Western lawmakers who believe the federal government already owns too much land.
Because Congress has only rarely approved full funding for the program, the LWCF has a theoretical balance of $20 billion, so Congress can still spend money on land programs.
That balance exists only on paper, though, as the money — as with other trust funds — has been spent for other purposes. LWCF supporters worry that the longer the program goes without a reauthorization, the more vulnerable it becomes to budget cuts.
The expiration of the program already means that the roughly $2.5 million a day that was going into the LWCF Trust Fund is now going to the general Treasury.
Proponents say the availability of that federal funding can be particularly important for key tracts in this region, particularly because of the high cost of land near the Bay and its tributaries. “Many of the state funding pots for land conservation are under threat or have been eliminated,” Dunn said. “The federal funds are the catalyst.”
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