Opinion: Protect farm and forest land - Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund

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By John Larson

As House Speaker John Boehner prepares his final “to do” list before he retires at the end of October, I hope he includes reauthorizing and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).  Although this fund has generated some controversy in its 50 years, we at the American Farmland Trust believe it can be an important tool for keeping farmers and ranchers on the land and keeping the land dedicated to agricultural uses.

Since 1960 through LWCF, a small portion of federal offshore drilling fees has been devoted to protecting and conserving some of America's most treasured and important lands to benefit wildlife and the environment, increase recreational opportunities and conserve forest and ranchlands.  But in many years Congress has funded the program far below the authorized level of $900 million, and on September 30, authorization for the program expired. 

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This isn't a perfect program, but it does offer opportunities to maintain farmland and forestland through conservation easements.  And it's worth continuing and fully supporting.

The funds are used for three purposes:  land acquisition for outdoor recreation, grants for state parks and recreation and support for other federal programs with related aims.  In addition, the money is administered by four federal agencies:  the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service.

In the past, some have opposed LWCF for ideological reasons but it has strong potential for conserving our nation's dwindling supply of forest and farm lands. I am particularly pleased that conservation has become an increasingly significant focus for the LWCF through easements that keep private lands in private hands, preserving ranches and farms and enhancing rural economies while providing benefits to wildlife and the environment. 


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In the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area alone, the LWCF has helped conserve more than 960,000 acres through easements with 5,000 landowners.  And there is a waiting list of 800 more landowners who are looking to enroll additional wetlands or grasslands through the Fish and Wildlife Service's effort to preserve native prairie lands through a voluntary conservation effort.

The LWCF also supports the Forest Legacy Program under USDA's Forest Service, helping states and private forest owners maintain working forest lands through matching grants for conservation easements.  Demand for this program is four times the $50 million average appropriation for it over the past five years.  Reauthorization and dedicated full funding of the LWCF would continue to fund easements under the Forest Legacy Program and help landowners maintain working forestlands.

As we search for strategies and monies to preserve our nation's productive farm and forest lands, the LWCF offers a critical opportunity to increase voluntary conservation easements that help keep private working lands in production and benefit both wildlife and the environment.  So, Speaker Boehner, I encourage you to put reauthorizing the LWCF on your list and get it done.  The clock is ticking, and the time to act is now.

About the Author: John Larson is the Executive Director of Programs for American Farmland Trust.

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