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Land and Water Conservation Fund expires; fight looms in Congress

WASHINGTON – New Mexico’s Democratic lawmakers are calling for renewal of the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund after its expiration last week, while the delegation’s lone Republican says the program needs to be revamped.

The fund, which expired last Wednesday, is financed with royalties paid by energy companies that drill for publicly owned oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf. The money – about $900 million last year – is used largely to acquire private land within the borders of national parks, forests and wildlife refuges and other protected sites.

The program’s authorization expired Sept. 30 after some Republicans called for changes in the way the money is disbursed, but funding for it and other government programs will continue until at least Dec. 11 under a stopgap federal spending bill approved by Congress last week.

New Mexico has received roughly $261 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund since its inception for acquisition of lands across the state, including at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument and Lincoln National Forest.

“For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect New Mexico’s precious land and water resources that are a part of our heritage and culture,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján. D-N.M. “As one of our most successful conservation and recreation programs, (the fund) has also strengthened our economy and helped create jobs in our communities by supporting public access to outdoor recreation that attracts visitors from near and far.”

But while most Democrats in Congress support the fund’s reauthorization, some Republicans – including Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico – contend the money could be spent better elsewhere instead of acquiring more land for the federal government. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has held up legislation to reauthorize the program.

“The federal government cannot maintain the land it already owns,” Pearce said. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created to assist states in management of lands for recreational use. Over the last couple of decades, the fund has been more focused on purchasing more land, instead of managing the land it already has under conservation. Reauthorization of the LWCF must return the program to its intended purpose, to benefit state recreational and conservation uses.”

Democrats, including those in New Mexico’s congressional delegation, contend the money is used for open spaces that generations can treasure — and that help bring tax dollars into the Treasury.

“The LWCF is based on a simple idea – use revenue from developing one natural resource for preserving public lands and waters for all to enjoy,” said Sen. Tom Udall. “In its 50 years, the LWCF has created urban parks like Valle de Oro and Petroglyph National Monument and conserved wild backcountry across New Mexico. These parks and open spaces support countless jobs and improve our quality of life.”

But others say the fund dedicates too much money to land acquisitions and not enough to local communities. Of the $16.8 billion appropriated from the fund in its 50 years, 62 percent has been allocated to federal land acquisition, 25 percent to a state grant program and 13 percent to other uses, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced legislation this year to reauthorize the conservation fund, as well as set aside 1.5 percent of its revenue every year to provide and ensure access to millions of acres of national public lands that the public currently cannot reach.

A coalition of New Mexico hunters, anglers and other users of public lands issued a statement last week urging the fund’s reauthorization.

“For 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has benefited our nation in a myriad of ways, from improvements in our national forests to boat ramps, shooting ranges, municipal parks and ballfields,” said Max Trujillo, sportsman coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “We can only hope that as Congress works toward a lasting budget agreement in December they will honor the bipartisan background of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and make this valuable program permanent.”

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