CONSERVATION: Western governors split over future of LWCF
Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, December 7, 2015

LAS VEGAS -- Western governors meeting here last Friday said they support reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but disagreed over whether the 50-year-old program should first be reformed.

The split has thus far kept the bipartisan Western Governors' Association on the sidelines of the testy debate in Washington over how to reauthorize LWCF, which expired Sept. 30 for the first time since its enactment in 1965.

Governors from Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and Idaho were attending WGA's winter meeting.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who delivered a keynote speech to WGA on Friday, said she does not support reforming the law, arguing that it works just fine.

The law authorized up to $900 million to be spent annually on federal land purchases, conservation of private forestlands and state recreation and endangered species grants. Western states historically have been top recipients of LWCF money, given the large amounts of federal lands they contain.

The reauthorization debate largely revolves around whether to limit the purchase of new federal lands and whether to increase the portion of LWCF funding that is given to states for close-to-home recreation like urban parks, trails, boat ramps and ballfields.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) said he would like more money to come to states, but not if that derails the program's reauthorization.

"If the question was presented to me, 'Do I want more money going to states?' my answer would be 'Yes,'" he said. "Do I want that or nothing? No."

In contrast with WGA, the National Governors Association has issued formal policy recommendations for reauthorizing LWCF. Mead co-signed a letter in November on behalf of NGA that called for reforms to "increase the allocation" of money to states. The law provided at least 60 percent of LWCF money to states until it was amended in 1976.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) on Friday sidestepped the policy discussion, insisting only that Congress move quickly to reauthorize the law.

"Whatever it looks like, it's long past due for Congress to move on this, because this is very, very important to Western states," he said. "I don't want to set up a false debate, more or less, 'Should it be this or that?' It just needs to get done."

Bullock in November said LWCF's "current structure and flexibility," which guarantees that at least 40 percent of LWCF goes to federal land purchases with the rest allocated by appropriators, "has served Montana well."

Montana has received over $237 million from the LWCF since 2005. Federal records reviewed by Greenwire showed that Montana received a disproportionately high amount of LWCF land acquisition investments over the past five years (E&E Daily, Nov. 20).

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) broke with Bullock by calling for curbs on land purchases.

When Otter represented Idaho in the U.S. House during the George W. Bush administration, he authored amendments to prevent the United States from purchasing "more land to neglect," he said. Federal lands agencies face fiscal strain in getting their existing buildings up to code, he said.

"I think the money should come back to states, but unfettered, and we have a say-so then and where that money is spent," Otter said. "I would resist in Idaho them buying any more land if that land is bought and then taken out of multiple use or neglected as we see a lot of."

Otter's position is backed by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), both of whom have introduced bills that would restrict the purchase of federal lands.

Reform proponents have effectively blocked LWCF from being reauthorized, despite the law's broad bipartisan support.

Jewell said a legislative compromise should be off the table.

"We believe that a compromise of any sort weakens something that has worked out well," she said. "I don't think you'll see support for a compromise."

Jewell said Bishop's reform package garnered criticism including from some of his Republican colleagues. She said she urged the governors who attended the WGA meeting to lobby their delegations to reauthorize the law.

LWCF proponents are hoping a reauthorization can be included in a year-end bill to fund the government.

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