October 1, 2018 / 8:39 PM / 3 months ago

Funding for U.S. land acquisition program expires in Congress

SEATTLE, Oct 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A decades-old U.S. public fund used to purchase land for parks and recreation has dried up after lawmakers failed to meet a deadline to reauthorize its funding.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, established by the U.S. Congress in 1964, expired on Sunday at midnight.

Using about $900 million-a-year from offshore oil revenues, the program helped expand such sites as Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park.

It was particularly useful for solving a so-called checkerboard problem by acquiring adjacent parcels to create more contiguous parks and forests, supporters said.

While funding came from oil companies and not taxpayer dollars, the program ran into opposition from some in Congress who disagreed over management of federal lands and some who wanted to see the money spent elsewhere.

The lapsed funding comes after recent efforts by Congress and the administration of President Donald Trump to relax public land protections.

Last year, the Trump administration severely shrank the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, drawing praise from pro-development lawmakers. Utah’s Republican Rep. Mike Lee has proposed eliminating all public lands in western U.S. states.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, has co-sponsored a bill that would reauthorize the fund.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the key tool that we use to help communities, to help the state, to help our nation preserve recreation opportunities and to make the most cost effective use of the land,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

In 2015, Congress extended the program for three years but did not support a full reauthorization.

Conservation advocates say they are concerned about the future of public land acquisition.

“These are all really complex deals put together over long periods of time that already have the ability to easily unravel,” Jonathan Asher, a spokesman for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, a group founded to save the fund.

“Anytime you add more uncertainty to the mix, it throws one more question mark into this already challenged process and has ripple effects that go out through local planning processes all over the country,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst

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