May 16, 2022 |Will Allen | Land

A Rare Opportunity to Unlock More Funding for Conservation

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is one of the nation’s most important programs in acquiring quality outdoor recreation resources for present and future generations. LWCF has funded over 45,000 conservation projects in every state and county in the United States. The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) of 2020 provided full funding of LWCF for the first time since its creation—$900 million annually. This effectively doubled the program’s capacity over its most recent annual appropriations.


LWCF is the funding source for nine different federal programs, including the land acquisition programs of the four federal agencies:

And it 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.

The source of LWCF funds are offshore royalty revenues, not taxes, that have been reinvested in conservation and recreation access projects.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the increase in annual LWCF funding means we need more capital than ever to ensure that at-risk lands are protected. Public agencies will not be able to spend all the new allocated funds unless a private partner steps in to provide upfront acquisition funding when landowners are ready to sell.

Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Federal funding from the USFWS’s Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF) and LWCF were essential in USFWS’s acquisition of this land. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

And that’s exactly how The Conservation Fund operates. Since our inception in 1985, we have raised $150 million from our charitable partners to create a revolving pool of capital to bridge the gap between when sellers want to sell and when public agencies have the money available to permanently protect key properties. Approximately $50 million of our revolving fund annually has been dedicated solely to LWCF funded projects in recent years. Every dollar in our fund is invested in land conservation at least twice every five years. Over the last 37 years, we have leveraged our fund with more than $2.5 billion from other public and private sources.

Let’s imagine a situation where this all plays out. In our example, a ranch owner is ready to sell their large property and the BLM wants to acquire it. At previous LWCF funding levels, BLM would have been forced to break up this large transaction and try to acquire the ranch over a three-year period, putting a portion of the unacquired lands in jeopardy of being sold to another buyer. However, with the new LWCF funding, the BLM could acquire it all in one year, which is often the preferred approach for private landowners. Nonetheless, BLM would not be able to bring the total funding at the time of purchase from the landowner, so they would need our revolving fund to bridge that timing gap. The difference here is that we would need to bring almost triple the amount to closing than we would have in a multi-phased project. Take this example and multiply it across all the LWCF land transactions across the country, and you can understand the challenge.

North Mountain in Virginia. The Conservation Fund and USFS announced the protection of 237 acres on North Mountain, which falls within the viewshed of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and will be added to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. With funding from LWCF, a grant from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Wild East Action Fund and other sources, we and our partners were able to save critical habitat and iconic viewsheds by securing the land. Photo by Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

As the demands for our capital have increased, we also have spent time reflecting on what conservation impacts have been achieved, above and beyond the 4,000 transactions themselves that have resulted in the permanent protection of more than 8.5 million acres in all 50 states. The original LWCF statute focused on outdoor recreation resources as the primary benefit, but the lands that are added to existing or new parks, refuges, trails, forests and other public lands provide multiple benefits to communities. Looking at past and future conservation impact of LWCF projects, the benefits of these important efforts are often multidimensional and fall into five overlapping outcomes:

  1. Protecting and restoring lands and waters, such as forests and wetlands, that will increase the Nation’s resilience to CLIMATE CHANGE.
  2. Protecting NATURAL & CULTURAL HERITAGE sites significant to Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
  3. Protecting WILDLIFE HABITAT so that species can thrive in their natural environment.
  4. Strengthening America’s URBAN & RURAL ECONOMIES by protecting natural and cultural resources critical to human health and economic opportunity.
  5. Creating permanent OUTDOOR RECREATION opportunities by protecting vital landscapes and increasing access to them.

These are the benefits that we strive to achieve every day as we conserve even more of America’s magnificent land legacy. We need your help to rise to this challenge and be ready protect at risk lands for current and future generations.

Sweetwater Lake in Colorado. The Conservation Fund purchased the land in 2020 to prevent any potential development while the Forest Service awaited funding from LWCF for the project, which had been identified among the top 10 priority LWCF purchases nationwide. Now a part of the White River National Forest, the property will remain protected in perpetuity. Photo by Todd Winslow Pierce.

Written by

Will Allen

Will Allen is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Giving & Conservation Services at The Conservation Fund in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. With the Fund more than 20 years, Will oversees the divisions of Marketing & Communications, Development, Freshwater Institute, Resourceful Communities and the Conservation Leadership Network. He is the co-author, with Dr. Kent Messer, of the Cambridge University Press book entitled The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less. He served as co-editor-in-chief and managing editor of the Journal of Conservation Planning and has published in peer reviewed journals, trade publications, and blogs for the Fund, Jobs for the Future and The Nature of Cities. Will holds a B.A. in Urban Studies from Stanford University and a Masters in Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.