The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund — which has supported dozens of projects in the Chesapeake Bay region — was made permanent on March 12, when President Trump signed the bipartisan bill doing so into law.Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge received money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (Dave Harp)

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has existed since 1965, but until now had to be periodically reauthorized by Congress. The new law makes those votes unnecessary but has no impact on how much funding the LWCF will receive in the future.

Its permanence is part of the John D. Dingell, Jr., Conservation, Recreation and Management Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives approved with a vote of 363 to 62 on Feb. 26. Earlier in February, the Senate had voted 92 to 8 in favor of the measure.

Joseph McCauley, a fellow with the Chesapeake Conservancy and a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who oversaw land acquisitions through the LWCF for the Northeast Region, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed, called the passage “a big deal.” Even “if some future Congress isn’t enamored with the Land and Water Conservation Fund, at least it’s permanently reauthorized, and that won’t be a way to undermine it,” he said.

Since the LWCF’s inception, the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been an important beneficiary of its funds, which have led to major acquisitions of public lands in the region.

“Virtually every national park, national wildlife refuge, [Bureau of Land Management] natural resource management area, national forest addition since 1965 in our watershed has had funding from LWCF,” said Jody Couser, director of communications for the Chesapeake Conservancy.

Congressional disagreements have plagued the LWCF in prior years, stalling its reauthorization and holding projects in limbo until a compromise could be brokered — delays that could be especially detrimental in deals the government was seeking to make to acquire land from private owners.

“They’re working with real people out there, and to have some certainty when working with individuals who are thinking of selling their land is important,” McCauley said.

The Dingell Act has removed that chokepoint, but not the challenges involved in releasing the designated funds.

Since the LWCF first went into operation, Congress has authorized more than $40 billion for the fund, with the majority of that money — $37.8 billion — coming from revenues from oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. (The remainder comes from the federal motorboat fuel tax, surplus property sales and, since 2006, revenue from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Securities Act.)

While $900 million is authorized to be placed in the LWCF every year, only once, in fiscal year 2001, has Congress appropriated all of that for conservation and recreation projects. Altogether, only $18.4 billion of the total authorized amount has been drawn from the fund over its history to acquire federal lands and waters; channel grants to the states for recreational purposes; and further other related programs.

While LWCF money is unattached to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the funds fit neatly into one of the key goals of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which seeks to “conserve landscapes treasured by citizens in order to maintain water quality and habitat; sustain working forests, farms and maritime communities; and conserve lands of cultural, indigenous and community value.”

Most recently, LWCF funding for the Bay peaked in fiscal year 2016, when Congress appropriated $10.7 million for land conservation projects throughout the watershed.

The money was spread widely in the region, supporting the conservation of more than 2,000 acres in Maryland’s Nanjemoy Natural Resource Management Area, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Piscataway Park; Virginia’s Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area and Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge; Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg National Military Park; and the interstate Washington–Jefferson National Forest and Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

That windfall, McCauley said, was due to two factors: the high-profile acquisitions of sites such as Werowocomoco, a major Powhatan religious and governmental center where Captain John Smith’s famous encounters with the leader Powhatan occurred, and the collaborative approach that the region took to its funding needs.

In 2013, the Department of the Interior, under Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, launched the Collaborative Landscape Planning Program, which sought to identify significant landscapes for conservation and channel funding toward them through the LWCF.

The Rivers of the Chesapeake project was the Bay region’s response to this call, coordinating the LWCF requests of federal agencies including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, as well as the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy. Thanks to this effort, McCauley said, “the Chesapeake did compete very successfully.”

Under the Trump administration, the collaborative approach was dropped “with little fanfare,” McCauley said. Nevertheless, the conservancy has continued to spearhead the Rivers of the Chesapeake group to continue coordinating funding efforts.

In the years after 2016, LWCF funding for the Chesapeake watershed declined: According to data from the Chesapeake Conservancy, the LWCF appropriated almost $7.4 million for projects in the Chesapeake region in fiscal year 2017, with appropriations of $6 million in FY2018 and a little more than $4 million in FY2019.

Looking forward, the future of LWCF funding for the watershed remains uncertain. Although Trump’s signature on the Dingell Act makes the fund permanent, the administration’s proposed FY2020 budget not only adds no new money to the LWCF for the upcoming year but claws back $23 million of its FY2019 budget.

Still, McCauley said that cut is unlikely to happen: “That’s just the president’s request, so Congress is not likely to go along with that,” he said, pointing out that “LWCF has been a bipartisan program for its entire life. This is not a partisan issue, at least not in Congress.”