Give the states more say on conservation

Jake Alway of Citrus Heights, left, and his sons David and Landyn fish for trout in April near Stumpy Meadows in the Eldorado National Forest in the central Sierra Nevada.
Jake Alway of Citrus Heights, left, and his sons David and Landyn fish for trout in April near Stumpy Meadows in the Eldorado National Forest in the central Sierra Nevada. Sacramento Bee file

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 50-year-old federal program, recently died when Congress failed to reauthorize it. It sounds like a tale of typical Washington politics. It’s actually a story of David vs. a green Goliath.

The fund receives revenue from offshore oil and gas leases. The money is spent in two ways – acquiring land for the federal government and giving grants to states for local recreation projects. Originally, 60 percent was earmarked for states, providing $203,000 to preserve the Sonoma Baylands in Sonoma County.

But in the 1970s, the fund was changed to allow a greater share to be spent on land acquisition. There was a backlog of land that the federal government wanted to buy, but now the federal government can’t take proper care of the land it owns, nearly 30 percent of the entire country. The National Park Service has more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance, while the U.S. Forest Service has more than $300 million in backlogged trail repairs.

It makes no sense for conservation money to buy land that the government can’t take care of. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, blocked reauthorization of the fund, proposing instead to increase how much goes to states and reduce what goes to federal land acquisition.

Environmental groups, however, have launched an expensive ad campaign against this common-sense reform.

Why? More land under federal control means it’s easier to control how the land is used, and these environmental groups want to ban energy development – namely oil and gas. The same reasoning is behind their opposition to transferring management of some federal lands to the states, even though states would be better stewards. States might allow limited use of the land for energy development.

This campaign against reform of the conservation fund is cleverly disguised. The group behind the ads is called the Western Values Project, but it is a front group backed by the D.C.-based New Venture Fund, an organization that runs more than 100 similar projects and has received tens of millions of dollars from environmentalist interests.

A couple of groups claiming to represent sportsmen have emerged to vociferously reject reform. These groups seem legitimate and grass-roots, but tax records show that one of them, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, gets most of its money from a handful of environmentalist sources. Another, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, gets most of its funding from environmentalists and labor unions.

In fact, mainstream sportsmen groups are pushing for a slight change to the conservation fund. A federal bill introduced in February would earmark 1.5 percent, or $10 million, of the fund to enhance public access for hunters and anglers on federal lands. This is far more productive than simply increasing federal real estate holdings.

Reformers want to ensure more money is going to states, while environmentalist special interests want to make sure money is splurged on simply buying land. One idea promotes responsible conservation, the other doesn’t.

Will Coggin is research director at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group funded by businesses in the agriculture, energy and hospitality industries. He can be contacted at