Could a Lame Duck Congress Step Up to Protect Public Lands? Advocates zero in on a possible public lands package, including renewing the Land and Water Conservation Fund

By Elizabeth Miller of the Santa Fe Reporter

If you’ve spotted bighorn sheep in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, fished streams meandering through Valles Caldera, or even if you’ve just been to Fort Marcy or Ragle parks in Santa Fe to watch your kid swing a baseball bat, you’ve benefitted from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That’s the argument Andrew Black, public lands field director for the Rocky Mountain Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation, makes when he tries to rally support for the 54-year-old program.

Congress allowed the fund’s authorization to expire at the end of September. Every day since then, based on a National Wildlife Federation analysis, more than $2 million in royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling that could be spent preserving wild places and public outdoor spaces has gone to the general treasury.

“It’s something I think a lot of people in the community don’t know much about, but that affects everyday quality of life here with the parks and playgrounds and trails,” Black says of the fund. He grew up in Santa Fe playing on those ballfields and now fishes those streams.

The lame-duck session that started Nov. 13 offers the best chance for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to be quickly renewed. Bills to reauthorize it have passed House and Senate committees and both made the historic move of calling for permanent reauthorizations for the program. At most, it’s been given 25-year approval in the past. The last re-up was for just three years.

“It’s not because the program is not appreciated, and not because it’s not making a huge difference in local communities and on federal public lands,” says Black, a former staffer for both Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Martin Heinrich. “It’s gotten caught up in the partisan gridlock. … You have US senators themselves saying, if there is ever anything that should be able to rise above some of the partisan gridlock in DC, this should be it. It makes such a huge difference on the federal level and on the state and local level to so many different people, in so many different communities, in so many different ways.”

By his count, the votes are ready to pass the bill. That legislation just has to rise above the noise, which includes a spending bill with a Dec. 7 deadline to fund the government. So he’s turning up the volume by organizing local statements of support, including from the city and county of Santa Fe. Coalitions of outdoor brands and hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation organizations and businesses are likewise sending letters or planning lobbying days to keep this legislation from dropping off the calendar.

“Generally, it’s supported on both sides of the aisle,” says Greg Hiner, southwest director of land protection with the Trust for Public Land. “It’s not just a measure for the tree-hugger fringe of conservation.”

New Mexico has received $316 million of the $18.4 billion appropriated over the fund’s lifetime. The places it has reached are a checklist of #NewMexicoTrue destinations. However, Hiner points out that Gov. Susana Martinez, whose administration launched that tourism campaign, balked at the required state-match for some of these grants, and so the number received in the last eight years has notably declined.

His organization often works to broker deals that use LWCF money to secure conservation easements for private inholdings in national parks, monuments and forests. In recent years, that’s reached 2,500 privately held acres within Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, and he’s working now on projects for fishing access near Taos and for a trailhead in the Gila National Forest.

“Putting these conservation projects together takes a lot of time. If there’s no visibility as to whether there’s funding at the end of the road, then it only becomes that much more difficult,” Hiner says. “If you’re telling [landowners], ‘Hey, this is going to take two years and I have no idea whether the Land and Water Conservation Fund is going to be around in two years,’ that can change the possibilities.”

When those opportunities slip by, it can block access to public lands, fragment wildlife habitat, or, as has happened in Utah, lead to massive houses in the middle of Zion National Park.

Legislation to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund could be bundled with about a dozen bills for a public lands package. Its company might include the Recreation Not Red-Tape Act, which would task land managers with inventorying public lands to protect as new national recreation areas, and the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act to address the $11 billion national parks maintenance backlog, also using money from energy development. Congress also has a menu of public lands up for protection through 10 bills affecting 2 million acres.

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