Cheers and fears as Land and Water Conservation Fund order rescinded, replaced

The galaxy lights up over the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one of many public lands to benefit from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The U.S. Department of the Interior recently replaced a controversial secretarial order pertaining to the fund's implementation. 

The U.S. Department of the Interior has revoked a previous secretarial order it now says imposed unfair conditions on the implementation of Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The LWCF became part of the much-hailed bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act last year. The act permanently funded the LWCF as well as earmarked money for addressing maintenance backlog on federal public lands like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The LWCF also provides matching grants to state and tribal governments to develop amenities like hiking trails, urban green spaces and city parks. Here, LWCF money has gone to help the development of parks in Nucla, Olathe and the City of Montrose (Holly Park), as well as provided millions in projects at the Black Canyon.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is to gain at least $900 million a year under the Great American Outdoors Act. The LWCF itself was established in 1964 for conservation and recreation on public lands; revenue for it comes from energy companies that extract publicly owned natural resources from the Outer Continental Shelf.

Last November, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order that limited the availability of the funding for land and water acquisitions.

On Thursday, that order was rescinded. Acting Interior Secretary Scott A. de la Vega’s replacement order states the previous order had “unilaterally” conditioned the availability of state financial assistance on compliance with new policy, but without meaningful consultation from stakeholders or the public.

The previous order “also imposed new restrictions not mandated by law on the availability of LWCF funding for federal acquisitions of land, water, or interests therein,” de la Vega’s order states.

“These limitations were imposed immediately after Congress dramatically increased the annual funding level of the LWCF to in excess of $900 million. (The old order) needlessly inhibits availability of LWCF funds to state assistance programs and federal land acquisitions and is not mandated by any existing statutory or regulatory requirement.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership hailed de la Vega’s order as one that would help assure access to public lands. The conservation partnership is a coalition of conservation organizations that advocates for hunting, angling and outdoor recreation.

“We are pleased the department is doing away with rules that could have crippled getting these critical dollars to the ground,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a provided statement.

“Sportsmen and sportswomen want to ensure that the LWCF is working to increase public access to outdoor recreation opportunities and conserve important habitats. This is going to require investments in agency capacity, prioritization of areas with recreational value, and coordination between federal, state, and private partners. We appreciate that hunters and anglers are being heard in this process.”

The conservation partnership decried the Bernhardt order as one that “gave county commissioners veto authority over private landowners’ decision to sell their land.”

The National Association of Counties sees the orders in a different light. Counties cannot collect property taxes on federally owned lands, but often must provide infrastructure such as roads and services, such as law enforcement. (In Montrose County, there are nearly 1 million acres of public lands.)

Federal acquisitions of private land can affect counties’ tax bases negatively and also limit economic development opportunities, Jonathan Shuffield, NACO association legislative director, said in a provided statement.

“(Bernhardt’s) secretarial order ensured counties would have a direct say in how LWCF for new land acquisitions would be used within their jurisdiction,” he said.

“While we were disappointed in the decision to repeal (the order), we will work with the new administration to mitigate any negative impacts caused by new federal land acquisitions.”

In the new order issued Thursday, de la Vega instructed federal public lands-management agencies to revise their guidance for LWCF expenditures and conduct a policy review. The National Park Service was also directed to revise its LWCF manual to remove the policy provisions that were added because of Bernhardt’s previous order.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been crucial to protecting public lands, conserving wildlife habitats, and improving access to outdoor recreation. Interior’s actions today affirm our support for one of America’s most successful and popular conservation programs,” said Shannon A. Estenoz, principal deputy assistant secretary of Fish and Wildlife and Parks, in a provided statement.

“We look forward to further strengthening this successful program to ensure that all communities – from hikers and sportsmen to urban and underserved communities – have access to nature and the great outdoors.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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