Critics Sound Alarm After DOI Misses LWCF Dates, Changes Order

Multiple groups are criticizing the Department of the Interior for its handling of funding tied to the Great American Outdoors Act that was signed into law earlier this year.
The LWCF has helped fund IMBA Epics like Buffalo Creek, Co. Photo: Matt Miller

A few months ago in July, the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Trump. The bill included permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), about $900M per year. This came after previous failed attempts to fully fund the LWCF. Now, funding has hit another snag.

The LWCF has helped fund eight IMBA epics in its history and has only been fully funded twice. The fund is generated from revenues from offshore oil and gas royalty payments. Needless to say, mountain bike advocates were excited when it passed Congress, as it means more money for new trails, thanks to a $20B, five year plan to address much needed maintenance in public parks across the US.

“The Great American Outdoors Act will help meet the demand for accessible outdoor spaces, put people to work building and maintaining trails and parks across the country, and help create trail systems that provide lasting economic benefits,” said IMBA executive director Dave Weins when it passed. “The pandemic has revitalized the importance of the outdoors. At the same time, it has highlighted how we don’t have enough trails close to home, and how the trails that exist aren’t always equally distributed.”

But, the Department of the Interior missed the deadline on November 2 to submit project lists for the LWCF to receive funding in 2021, though they did submit lists for deferred maintenance projects. To some critics, the lists they submitted after the deadline seemed inadequate.

“First, they missed the deadline. Second, they sent up project lists that have nowhere near the level of detail required. And third, their submission dramatically short-sheets federal land conservation and recreation,” said Drew McConville, Senior Managing Director of Government Relations at The Wilderness Society and a spokesperson for the LWCF Coalition.

According to E&E News, the lists shouldn’t differ much from the original list that was submitted to lawmakers in April, which included $116M for 61 projects at the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service, but resubmission is required with the Act.

A week ago, the Department of Interior finally released the order for the LWCF. The order still allocates the full $900M for funding, but Secretary Bernhardt, the head of the DOI appears to have changed what is much of the spirit of the LWCF.

“For over 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has remained a bipartisan conservation success story,” said Kristine Stratton, the president of the National Recreation and Park Association. “NRPA is disappointed with the Department of the Interior’s recent attempt to disrupt the bipartisan nature of the program. The recently issued LWCF Secretarial Order includes provisions that Members of Congress from both parties have previously rejected.”

The order now lays out funding priorities for state and local assistance funds from the LWCF, rather than letting states determine the priorities for funding.

“We believe that state and local governments uniquely know the outdoor recreation needs in their communities and it is there that these decisions should be made. Secretary Bernhardt’s order creates funding constraints that will result in an unnecessary burden for local governments.”

The National Wildlife Federation also called the order a “giant step backward for America’s most successful and popular conservation program,” saying that it puts “unwieldy restrictions on federal agencies and their use of conservation funds, in direct violation of the intent of the Great American Outdoors Act.”

The NWF called on Congress to finish the budget planning for fiscal year 2021for the LWCF “without regard to the Department of Interior’s attempt to cripple this popular program.”

Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a state that has seen tens of millions of dollars in LWCF funding over the years wrote to Secretary Bernhardt after the new order was released. Much of his concerns had to do with how the order handles land acquisition through the LWCF for private landowners, and that it prioritizes projects for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service over other agencies.

Montana has received over $600M in LWCF funding over the past 50 years. “This flagrantly ignores the role of Interior’s third land management agency, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 245 million acres of public land, and relies on LWCF projects to resolve public land access issues. Explicitly prioritizing LWCF projects for Fish and Wildlife Service sends a message to the many westerners who live and recreate on Bureau of Land management lands that the landscapes they treasure simply aren’t a priority.”

Tester also took issue with the limited amount of details on projects and their funding amount in Bernardt’s order.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition writes that even though they disagree with the changes like others, the LWCF is still in motion. “Fortunately, Congress has already moved on — rejecting the flawed spending plan sent by the Administration earlier this week — and is working to finalize allocations and projects through the FY21 appropriations process.”