The Unstable Landscape of US Conservation Funding: An Op-ed by Rand Wentworth

Washington, DC foliage

There is a high level of uncertainty about federal funding for land conservation over the next four years. The recently passed 2017 budget has kept many conservation-related programs and funds intact, but 2018 may be a different story. The administration’s proposed budget calls for broad cuts to conservation funding, but Congress makes the final decision on appropriations.

With the shifting politics of Congress and the White House, the final outcome depends on the ability of conservation groups to fight for their interests. They can strengthen their voice by reaching out to conservative hunting, fishing and agriculture groups that value public lands and have demonstrated political power with the new Congress. For example, conservative hunting groups were effective in forcing Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to withdraw his bill transferring 3 million acres of federal lands.

Last year, the Senate voted to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) under the United States Department of the Interior. These funds are the primary funding source for new federal lands, state conservation grants, and the Forest Legacy Program. Since Congress passed this bill by a vote of 85 to 12 (as part of an energy bill), it is unlikely that the program will be eliminated.

We can get an idea of how Congress will treat LWCF going forward from the FY 2017 Omnibus Bill that Congress approved on May 4 to fund the government until October 2017. The House Appropriations Committee Report states that the bill “provides $400 million for LWCF programs, a reduction of $50 million below the fiscal year 2016 level and $75 million below the President’s request. State and local recreation and battlefield preservation programs are prioritized, while federal land acquisition is reduced.”

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget includes the United States Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS is the largest funder of agricultural conservation easements, supports Conservation Innovation Grants, and is an important source of take-out funds for private investors.

Agriculture lobbyists are already debating over funding in the next Farm Bill. Farm prices have dropped from their peak of four years ago. Meanwhile, lobbyists for commodity crops are pushing for increased crop insurance - which could leave less money for conservation. Some lobbyists want to increase the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides annual rental payments to farmers, from 25 to 40 million acres. This would put even more pressure on funding for permanent conservation easements.

If conservation groups hope to retain funding in the next Farm Bill, they need to aggressively advocate for robust funding for Title 2 conservation programs with both the administration and Congress.

Although the administration appears determined to reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some members of Congress are supportive of grant programs and regional conservation initiatives. For example, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has spoken up for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

If the new administration’s infrastructure bill is successful, the United States Department of Transportation would manage a massive number of construction projects, many of which could cause significant harm to wetlands and put habitat for endangered species at risk. That could result in increased mitigation funding for conservation projects. There is also a need for support and advocacy for the Recreational Trails Program, which land conservation groups and public agencies have accessed to fund local and regional trail networks.

Over the past decade, the United States Department of Defense has budgeted funds for Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) partnerships with conservation groups to acquire natural buffer lands around military bases. It is likely that funding for REPI will continue. It was funded at $75 million in 2016 and again at $75 million under the 2017 omnibus bill.

In summary, there is some hope that Congress will continue to fund non-regulatory approaches to conservation, like LWCF and conservation easements, that have strong support from conservative hunting, fishing and agriculture groups.

As the prospects for federal funding become more uncertain, there is a big upswing in local and state ballot measures. In the 2016 election, voters approved $3.3 billion in conservation funding - winning 76 of 96 ballot measures, according to Trust for Public Land’s LandVote. Much of the 2016 funding was approved by three cities in California: Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. So there is a lot of work to be done to build support in the rest of the country.

This is 10 times the annual funding that Congress typically approves for LWCF. It demonstrates the potential of ballot measures to drive conservation in the years ahead. Voters seem to like funding for conservation if they trust their local governments and they know where the funds are going.

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Calls to Action

In this rapidly changing political environment, conservation groups have the power to shape the outcome. Conservation groups can sustain funding by taking these actions.

  • Expand partnerships with conservative hunting, fishing and agriculture groups.
  • Promote the economic benefits of land conservation. (See the Trust for Public Land study which shows that every $1 of LWCF funds results in $4 in economic value.)
  • Be responsive to public concerns about income disparities, joblessness issues, underserved communities, and manufacturing employment.
  • Build relationships with members of Congress and express your support for conservation funding in LWCF and the Farm Bill.
  • Develop relationships with local elected officials and build coalitions long before proposing a conservation ballot measure.
  • Build strong public support for conservation.

This op-ed is by Rand Wentworth, the Louis Bacon senior fellow in environmental leadership at Harvard University. These are personal opinions and are not the official positions of Harvard University or Network. Special thanks to Russ Shay, director of public policy for the Land Trust Alliance, for his contributions to this article.

Note: Conservation Finance Network participates in policy conversations related to the Farm Bill. Our organization also receives funding from both the USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant program and the United States Department of Defense REPI program. We have also received funding from a program at Harvard University that is separate from the one mentioned above. 

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