Saving America’s Top Parks Program

Visitors view Half Dome from Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park, California.

In 1965, Congress forged a compact that has guided American offshore drilling policy for half a century. Through what is known as a conservation royalty, U.S. law requires that a portion of oil and gas companies’ revenues from drilling in the federally owned Outer Continental Shelf be invested in parks, open space, trails, and historic preservation projects across the country.

Today’s Congress—backed by nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars from the fossil fuels industry—is about to break that promise. On September 30, Congress is expected to allow the country’s single largest funding source for land, water, and wildlife conservation—known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF—to disappear. To pressure Congress to act and to save America’s best parks program, the Obama administration should delay its next offshore oil and gas lease sale until the LWCF is reauthorized and extended.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund

The idea behind the LWCF is both simple and effective. Over its 50-year history, revenues from offshore drilling have helped conserve more than 7 million acres of land and funded more than 40,000 parks and preservation projects, from building new baseball diamonds to saving Civil War battlegrounds. A commission organized by former President Ronald Reagan attributed the nation’s “dramatic progress in preservation” to the “catalytic effect of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

With bipartisan support from governors, mayors, and national leaders, the LWCF is arguably the United States’ most popular parks program. More than 200 Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate, for example, have already formally voiced their support for renewing the LWCF. Were it not for the partisan and anti-conservation focus of this Congress, a bipartisan majority could easily extend the LWCF when its current authorization sunsets in the fall.

The Republican leadership in Congress, however, appears determined to eliminate the program or raid its funds for unrelated spending. In the Senate, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), has proposed redirecting LWCF funds toward other spending needs, such as park maintenance costs. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) has proposed that LWCF dollars instead should be “re-invested in the education of future American energy industry workers.” When asked about proposals to fund LWCF at the levels currently prescribed by law, Rep. Bishop told a reporter, “there’s no way in hell I am going to allow you just to spend that to buy the inholdings [private land surrounded by national parks or other federal lands] they’re talking about or to expand the footprint of the federal government.” As the two primary gatekeepers for natural resources legislation in Congress, Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Bishop are unlikely to advance a proposal to save America’s best parks program unless its passage would benefit the fossil fuels-focused agenda that they advanced in the first months of the new Congress.

Why reauthorization is necessary

Without a swift change in the legislative and political dynamics in Congress, the LWCF will disappear on September 30, causing hundreds of local, state, and national park and preservation projects to be delayed, shelved, or abandoned. The National Park Service, for example, will not be able to acquire and preserve an Underground Railroad site within the boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park, creating a high risk that the land parcel will be commercially developed. In Utah, Salt Lake City’s efforts to protect and expand recreational access to Mill Creek Canyon would be delayed, as would other projects across the West to expand access for hunting and fishing on public lands. To make matters worse, the freeze on park and conservation projects would happen as the United States celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park System in 2016.

The Obama administration can save America’s best parks program, but it will need to engage in a bold fight for the basic idea that underpins the LWCF: Investment in conservation should be a condition for offshore drilling. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell should assert and defend this principle by directing the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, to delay its next auction of offshore oil and gas leases until Congress reauthorizes the LWCF.

Why BOEM should delay its August oil and gas lease sale

BOEM’s next offshore oil and gas lease sale is scheduled for August 19 in Louisiana. At the auction, oil and gas companies will have the opportunity to buy the rights to drill on more than 34,000 square miles of the western Gulf of Mexico, an area that stretches from near the Texas coast to the boundary of Mexican waters in the Gulf of Mexico. At its 2014 oil and gas lease sale for the western Gulf of Mexico, the federal government collected nearly $110 million in revenues from bonus bids. A portion of the revenues from bonus bids and the ensuing royalties from production are—under current law—deposited in the LWCF and invested in conservation projects across the country.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the LWCF, there is a high risk that bonus bids and royalties from BOEM’s upcoming August lease sale will not be invested in conservation, defying the 50-year-old compact that is at the foundation of offshore drilling policy. With oil and gas companies currently sitting on more than 37,000 square miles of unused offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico, briefly delaying the August lease sale until the LWCF is reauthorized would not affect U.S. oil and gas production. In fact, with current oil prices near six-year lows, a delayed lease sale may provide time for oil prices to rise. If so, the auction would likely yield higher bonus bids and revenues for the federal government.

A delay will invariably spark howls of protest from oil companies accustomed to having an annual opportunity to buy drilling rights nearly anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico. Ultimately, however, permission to drill in publicly owned waters is a privilege—not a right—that is conditional upon the fulfillment of obligations to U.S. taxpayers and communities in all 50 states.

Conclusion

With an anti-conservation Congress poised to dismantle the compact that has guided offshore drilling for half a century, the Obama administration needs to step in for the American people. By rescheduling the August lease sale, Secretary Jewell and the administration can save a program that is indispensable to the future of American parks and carry forward one of this country’s most celebrated conservation legacies.

Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Public Lands at the Center for American Progress.