From 30x30 to America the Beautiful: The Land and Water Conservation Fund Remains Key to Conservation Outcomes on the Ground
Having witnessed numerous Federal environmental policy initiatives over the last few decades, going all the way back to my experience in the 1990s as an intern supporting the National Commission on the Environment, the challenge of an Executive Branch-led implementation initiative is the art and science of utilizing existing programs and crafting new bipartisan legislation that advance administration priorities within the checks and balances of our three-branch governing structure.
Dubbed originally as the 30×30 initiative, the America the Beautiful campaign is essentially a reframing and rebranding of the January 2021 Executive Order, helping move from an aspirational goal to an initiative that can be implemented on the ground. As I mentioned in my previous blog, 30×30 was intended to address the lack of a clear, common vision for conservation and the need for a process with broad public engagement to ensure that Federal investments in conservation reflect the priorities of all communities.
In their efforts to transition from the inspirational to the pragmatic, they have proposed establishing an “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas” to house data on land and waters managed for conservation and restoration and to prepare a “state of nature” annual report (scheduled for initial release by the end of 2021). The America the Beautiful report cites the lack of consensus over the definition of conservation and how to measure progress towards the goal, although conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 remains a stated goal in the conclusion of the report.
While lacking the specificity to measure a percentage goal, the report does outline six priority areas for the Administration’s early focus, investments, and collaboration:
- Creating more parks and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities.
- Supporting Tribally led conservation and restoration opportunities.
- Expanding collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats and corridors.
- Increasing access to outdoor recreation.
- Incentivizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of fishers, ranchers, farmers, and forest owners.
- Creating jobs by investing in restoration and resilience projects and initiatives, including the Civilian Climate Corps.
One of the most intriguing details, which was overshadowed by the emphasis on the 30×30 goal in the January 2021 Executive Order, is the Administration’s commitment to ensure that 40% of the overall benefits from Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities (the Justice 40 Initiative). The America the Beautiful report specifically cites the National Park Service’s Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) as a program worthy of expansion to help fulfill this commitment. Established in 2014 and administered through the National Park Service, the ORLP program is funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The ORLP program provides grants to urban areas that lack access to outdoor recreation, with priority given to projects located in economically disadvantaged areas.
EIGHT PRINCIPLES OF THE AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL INITIATIVE
- Principle 1: Pursue a Collaborative and Inclusive Approach to Conservation
- Principle 2: Conserve America’s Lands and Waters for the Benefit of All People
- Principle 3: Support Locally Led and Locally Designed Conservation Efforts
- Principle 4: Honor Tribal Sovereignty and Support the Priorities of Tribal Nations
- Principle 5: Pursue Conservation and Restoration Approaches That Create Jobs and Support Healthy Communities
- Principle 6: Honor Private Property Rights and Support the Voluntary Stewardship Efforts of Private Landowners and Fishers
- Principle 7: Use Science as a Guide
- Principle 8: Build on Existing Tools and Strategies With an Emphasis on Flexibility and Adaptive Approaches
The report also cites numerous existing Federal programs that can support implementation, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Working Lands for Wildlife Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill in 2023.
But the most self-evident centerpieces of implementing all six of these priority areas are the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act and the LWCF. LWCF was created by Congress in 1964 to support land conservation efforts and improve recreation access in the U.S. You know these places well—from giant swaths of majestic forests, to portions of national parks and wildlife refuges like Grand Teton and Okefenokee, all the way to your local parks and trails.
The Conservation Fund has helped federal, state and local partners advance numerous LWCF projects. Most recently, our efforts have supported NPS’s protection of a key property within Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming that preserves the iconic landscape of the Teton Range, prevents residential development and protects important habitat for a variety of wildlife. Photo by David Stubbs.
LWCF is the funding source for nine different federal programs. This includes the land acquisition programs of the four federal agencies:
- National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
And includes five federal grant programs for state and local efforts to provide:
- Matching grants to states through the State and Local Assistance Program for acquiring and developing recreational priorities, such as local parks and preserves;
- the Forest Legacy Program to fund the preservation of both state and private working forestlands;
- and other programs, including one to preserve non-federally owned American battlefield sites.
LWCF has funded over 45,000 conservation projects in every state and nearly every county in the U.S., including these projects recently completed by The Conservation Fund. In August 2020, funding for LWCF roughly doubled the Federal resource agency resources available for land conservation across the U.S. on an annual basis thanks to the Great American Outdoors Act—through royalties from offshore oil and gas leases.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is a rugged landscape that attracts hikers and campers who like a challenge. It’s also home to bighorn sheep, elk and the threatened Gunnison sage grouse. We recently helped the National Park Service add 2,494 acres to the park with funding from LWCF. Photo by NPS.
In conclusion, there are existing Federal funding programs with well-documented bipartisan support that can help invest in the America the Beautiful initiative’s six priority areas right now. While there continue to be legitimate concerns about the lack of details about potential new programs, particularly from several Governors and outspoken Western Congressional leaders, the time is now to invest LWCF proceeds into conservation projects that provide multiple benefits, including outdoor recreation, climate resiliency, local economic development, preservation of historic and cultural heritage, and equitable conservation projects that serve urban communities.
The Conservation Fund has recently utilized about $50 million annually of our Revolving Fund to help conserve LWCF-funded lands. The Revolving Fund is The Conservation Fund’s primary vehicle for protecting land. When landowners are ready to sell their properties, it takes time for government agencies to get the LWCF funds in hand to buy and protect these at-risk lands. The Revolving Fund provides the missing link—conservation capital needed for us to acquire and hold at-risk lands until our partners have the money to purchase them back from us. These lands are then able to be added to existing or new parks, refuges, trails, forests, and other public lands. With LWCF doubling, we need to increase our conservation capital to keep pace with securing key LWCF opportunities as they arise. This important work will go on while the details on the current initiative are sorted out by the current Administration and Congressional leaders.
“The Conservation Fund has helped protect 8.5 million acres [of land], and we will continue to play an important role in implementing LWCF by securing priority properties from willing sellers and bridging both timing and funding gaps to bring about successful conservation outcomes. LWCF is an important tool in our collective toolbelt.”
- Larry Selzer, President and CEO, The Conservation Fund (August 4, 2020)