WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2016 – President Barack Obama laid out his budget plan for next year on Tuesday, including his bid to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million – a level that’s only been met a few times in the program’s 51-year history.

The LWCF runs on offshore oil and gas drilling fees paid to the federal government. It distributes grants and matching funds to federal, state and local governments to buy land to establish parks, or to enter into easement agreements that protect forest and wildlife habitat. The president’s fiscal 2017 budget calls for a combination of $475 million in discretionary funding and $425 million in mandatory funding for the LWCF.

Congressional authorization for the LWCF lapsed at the end of September due to significant GOP pushback led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah. Democrats, however, were able to get the Fund reauthorized for three years with a 2016 annual budget of $450 million in the December omnibus bill.

USDA said in a release today that the president is “pursuing permanent authorization in annual mandatory funding for the Fund’s programs beginning in 2018.” Three bills that were introduced in Congress last year – S.338 and its companion bill HR.1814, and S.890 – would do just that.

Obama’s move to fully fund the LWCF was met with praise from Democrats.

The ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and the Environment, Tom Udall of New Mexico, said he would fight for the president’s proposal as the Senate writes its funding bills.

“The president’s focus on permanently and fully funding the LWCF is great news for New Mexico and communities across the country,” Udall said in a release. “The LWCF has helped New Mexico conserve our cultural sites and beautiful landscapes, and it has created ballfields and community parks across the state. The president is a powerful advocate, and I’m very pleased to have momentum as we begin the budget process.”

The ranking member on the Senate National Parks subcommittee, Martin Heinrich, also a New Mexico Democrat, said he would join in the fight to fully fund the LWCF because it is “one of America’s most successful conservation programs.”

USDA and Interior Department said in a joint release that “For every $1 invested through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, there is an estimated return of $4 in local economic activity.”

The program has supported more than 42,000 national, state and local parks and outdoor recreation projects in all 50 states, the agencies said. 

This year’s budget proposes to expand recreational access in Idaho and Montana, protect endangered species in the Everglades, preserve wetlands and grasslands in North and South Dakota, and protect significant archaeological sites, including the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and the Nanjemoy Natural Resource Management Area in Maryland.

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Republicans the LWCF is used inappropriately by the federal government to acquire more land in the West.

Bishop, the GOP voice on the issue, advocates for decreasing the portion of the LWCF budget that goes toward federal land acquisition – the feds already own 640 million acres in the West, he says – and increasing the portion that goes directly to states through the Stateside Assistance Grant Program (SAGP) and to urban areas.

He also argues that the federal government should be using its funds first and foremost to address the $18.8 million maintenance backlog on public lands. And states shouldn’t be able to use the funding for eminent domain projects, which, according to Bishop, at least 19 states have done.

These proposals, along with a plan to give LWCF grants to students studying offshore drilling, are featured in Bishop’s Protecting America’s Recreation and Conservation Act, which was discussed in committee last fall, but never formally introduced.

“The administration operates this fund like their own private piggy bank,” Bishop said in an emailed statement. “Under the status quo, LWCF will continue to lead to massive federal land grabs that compromise private property rights and economic opportunity for the American people.”

“This must and will change,” he vowed. “We will continue to highlight LWCF abuses and advance real reforms to restore the law’s intent so it actually helps people.”