Last summer, as the public was drawn to the outdoors in search of respite and a break from the daily stresses of the pandemic, landmark conservation legislation was enacted into law that finally secured full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
“In a wonderful sense of timing, as Americans were most in need of the land and all it offers, funding for the single most important land protection initiative in our nation’s history was made permanent,” says Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute (OSI), which has been leading the fight to fully fund the LWCF for more than 10 years.
Thanks to the Open Space Institute’s Outdoors America Campaign (OAC), the LWCF is now permanently guaranteed $900 million annually to protect America’s natural, recreational, and cultural resources. This new funding commitment has been lauded as long overdue and as having enormous potential for impact across the nation. Passed with bipartisan support, the Great American Outdoors Act, which included the LWCF funding, is the most consequential environmental legislation since 1991.
“Securing permanent, full funding of LWCF is transformational,” says Lesley Kane-Szynal, who heads OSI’s Outdoors America Campaign and chairs the LWCF Coalition. “This once-in-a-generation achievement could not be better timed with a new and enthusiastic administration, and what became very clear over the past ‘pandemic year’ is that getting access to the outdoors is incredibly important to huge portion of the public. But there is more work to do. Implementation of the new law and ensuring LWCF meets its full potential in protecting the best of the best throughout America and improving the lives of people across the nation is both exciting and challenging.”
Originally signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the LWCF was touted for its long-term commitment to conservation. “True leadership must provide for the next decade and not merely the next day,” said President Johnson at the Rose Garden bill signing. Still, for decades the LWCF, which is funded through offshore federal oil and gas leases, was regularly shortchanged as Congress appropriated only a portion of proceeds to the Fund.
And while there are many notable conservation success stories achieved through LWCF over the years, including funding for OSI acquisition projects in New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, the full potential of the LWCF has fallen short in all but two of the past 56 years.
In an effort to reverse shortfalls and secure the funds as originally intended, OSI spearheaded its OAC. For more than ten years OAC built a coalition of some 2,000 partners from across the country to make the case for full and permanent funding for the LWCF. “The effort was bolstered by the broad spectrum of supporters,” says Kane-Szynal. “Comprised of land conservation organizations, outdoor recreation businesses, sportsmen and sportswomen, local elected officials, Native American nations, trail groups, wildlife watchers, and more, our strength has been in our diversity. There were so many partners who never gave up.”
The effort proved successful when in 2020, after nearly 60 years since it was first established, the LWCF finally secured its rightful $900 million annual allocation. The timing could not have been better. The Biden administration’s Climate 30x30 Plan to tackle climate change and conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, has set the stage for a new national commitment to conservation to meet the most pressing environmental challenges of our time: protect our nation’s most precious natural resources, and improve public access to nature for all. Full funding of the LWCF will be critical to achieving these goals.