The long road to victory

Behind the 30-year fight to save America’s most important parks program: the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Stacked behind Los Angeles like an outsized Hollywood film backdrop, the San Gabriel Mountains exert a magnetic force. The pull is strong on a warm Saturday in early March, when I join what feels like half the city to wander the boulder-filled wash at the mouth of Eaton Canyon, a verdant cleave in the foothills. That attraction to the places where concrete dissipates into dirt and sagebrush, streams and oaks, has only amplified during the coronavirus pandemic. Time in nature is suddenly an urgent necessity, the best way to tend to our well-being amid the turbulence.

So it was a fitting time for the Great American Outdoors Act to debut. The bill, which senators introduced in early March and which became law in early August, provides over $9 billion to start fixing the maintenance backlog at federal lands like national parks and forests. And it guarantees full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the longstanding federal program that directs fees from oil and gas drilling to land conservation and recreation development.

The law that established LWCF in 1964 made it possible for Congress to eventually take in $900 million for parks and open spaces every year. But the program, which has benefited Eaton Canyon and many more locations in the San Gabriel Mountains and across the nation, has been allotted its full funding by Congress only twice since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the program into law.

A fully funded, permanently authorized LWCF has been the top policy goal for The Trust for Public Land for three decades. Making it happen was a colossal endeavor that required a diverse, visionary coalition of allies—from nonprofits to small-business owners, legislators to concerned citizens—working across decades to fight for one of the most important conservation wins of our lifetime.

Gauley River

Dave Arnold was smitten with West Virginia’s Gauley River after he first dipped his paddle in it back in 1976. A decade later, the waterway offered Arnold, by then owner of a paddle sports guiding company, another potent lure: the opportunity to advocate on its behalf.

After a pair of drought years in the mid-1980s threatened his livelihood, Arnold joined a group of commercial guides and recreational boaters dubbed Citizens for the Gauley River to rally legislators to ensure a regulated flow of whitewater each fall. Thanks to their efforts, the waterworks crank on every September to drain upstream Summersville Lake, creating the adrenaline-soaked delights of what’s now known as “Gauley Season.”

Recreation on the Gauley and the nearby New River proved a boon for the local economy—one of the main reasons Congress established the Gauley River National Recreation Area in 1988, with the support of Representative Nick Rahall, who’d been instrumental in codifying Gauley Season. There was one big problem, however: the Gauley’s banks had only a single public access point. And though the National Park Service had a presence in the area, since the New River had come under its management in 1978, the agency wasn’t exactly flush with cash—at least not the kind that would entice timber companies to hand over their acreage.

While he’d scrapped to purchase his own access points over the years, Arnold knew that once logging began closer to the river, it would affect the immersive natural experience that had first drawn him to the area—and that kept his customers coming back. He sought a way to protect those views and open up crucial public access. Arnold began talking with the park’s superintendent about tapping the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and soon became one of its loudest advocates. “It’s the fuel that will continue to make this park grow and mature,” he says.

Now an estimated 60,000 paddlers float the Gauley each year, and all of the public access points, including three secured by The Trust for Public Land, were funded by LWCF. Thanks in large part to this recreational tourism, Fayette County escaped the hardship that plagues much of southern West Virginia in the wake of coal mining’s decline. While LWCF helped bolster his community’s livelihood, it wasn’t pure economics that drove Arnold’s advocacy. “If you have something that’s diamond class, you better take care of it,” he says. “And here, Congress had passed something that was supposed to do that, but the money was getting jerked around.”

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Since its inception, funding for LWCF has undulated nearly as wildly as the Gauley itself. Most years Congress has appropriated less than half of the $900 million the fund makes available for parks and conservation. And sometimes much less, as was almost the case in 1981, when then Secretary of the Interior James Watt suggested essentially defunding the program (an idea thwarted by congressional champions).

Ensuring that what’s deposited in the fund is funneled back to the American people in full has long been a priority of The Trust for Public Land’s legislative efforts—in part because the organization relies on this funding to protect land and create parks. “We wouldn't have been able to get nearly as much done in the past 50 years without LWCF,” says Jordan Schreiber, director of national advocacy and outreach at The Trust for Public Land. “That being said, we're not just pushing for LWCF in order to keep our own doors open; we're pushing for LWCF because it's an incredibly important resource for communities across the country.”

  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF
  • Land and People Magazine: Fall-Winter 2020 - LWCF

Alan Front joined The Trust for Public Land’s staff in 1984. Sobered by Watt’s 1981 attempt to abolish the fund, Front and his colleague Harriet Burgess partnered with The Wilderness Society to present to Congress a wish list of places around the country that would benefit from LWCF appropriations.

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Thanks to efforts like these, support for LWCF grew in both the White House and on Capitol Hill. Rhode Island Republican Senator John Chafee and Arizona Democratic Representative Mo Udall introduced the first bill attempting to fully fund LWCF back in 1988. During the Clinton administration, Congress even appropriated full funding for the program—twice. 

Though the 1988 bill fizzled, the attempt “set the stage for future bipartisan efforts,” Front says. It also galvanized a coalition of conservation organizations, outdoor recreation groups, business owners, and local officials who used their broad reach to educate the public about LWCF and seek passage of promising legislation like the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1998.

Alas, that was another strikeout. Still, each attempt offered a shimmer of hope, and advocates kept at it. Meetings on the Hill. Phone calls. Email campaigns. Fly-ins. Op-eds. All the while, The Trust for Public Land and others kept using what LWCF money they could shake loose year after year to make a difference on the ground.

But in 2015, the unthinkable happened. At the end of its second 25-year authorization, LWCF was due for renewal. Despite the program’s long track record and history of bipartisan support, a vocal minority in Congress that opposed the expansion of federal land ownership managed to block legislation that would reauthorize the funding. When the deadline ran out, LWCF expired.

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With thick forests populated with grizzly bears, creeks flowing with cutthroat trout, and an undergrowth flush with mushrooms and berries, Montana’s Haskill Basin is an escape for residents of nearby Whitefish, who hike, bike, ski, hunt, fish, and forage amid its natural splendor. The basin is also home to threatened wildlife—and is the source for much of Whitefish’s drinking water, as well as a steady supply of timber that supports the local logging economy.

The public’s right to explore Haskill Basin had long been secured on nothing more than what Chuck Roady calls a “handshake deal.” Roady is vice president and general manager of F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company, which has operated in Haskill Basin for over a century. While the company’s relationship with the city was positive, it still faced pressure to offload parcels to private developers. “Probably a week or a month didn't go by that somebody said, ‘Well, can I buy this 160 acres up by the ski area, or could I buy this?” says Roady.

Whitefish mayor John Muhlfeld worked alongside Trust for Public Land staff to protect the Haskill Basin and ensure public access. Half of the $16.7 million asking price came through LWCF; the City of Whitefish rustled up the rest by levying a resort tax increase. The deal was finalized in 2016, securing critical habitat, water rights, and recreational access, while keeping much of the land as working forest. Everybody had chipped in—and everybody won.

“It’s been the most rewarding and biggest accomplishment I’ve worked on in my fourteen years in city government,” Mayor Muhlfeld says. “It’s going to be something that people can look back on in a hundred years and say, ‘Wow, that was visionary.’”

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Just as it took collaboration to protect Haskill Basin, so, too, did it take a diverse collection of voices to ensure LWCF wasn’t lost forever after its 2015 expiration. “They always say that defense kind of focuses people’s minds, right?” says Amy Lindholm, who manages the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, launched in 2009. “The program being on life support really got people's attention, and I think caused a lot of folks to join the cause.”

The coalition offered its members—from national groups like The Trust for Public Land, The Wilderness Society, and The Nature Conservancy to local groups from across the country—shared messaging and support, as well as an opportunity to strengthen the case for LWCF.

Kaci Preston participated in the American Hiking Society’s NextGen Trail Leaders program, which introduces young people to public lands advocacy. By the end of her tenure last year, Preston received the ultimate payoff—Schlanger Park, in her hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas, would receive LWCF funds for improvements. Preston was thrilled. “I advocated for that. I helped push that through, and now I'm seeing the effects in my own town,” she says. “It really made me feel like elected officials do understand us, and they do hear us.”

Happy Haynes, executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation, knows firsthand the importance of increasing close-to-home outdoor access. She grew up in the city; her own story of connection to the land began at a neighborhood park she used as a shortcut while walking to school. The nearby Rocky Mountains, however, seemed a world away—just as they do for many Denverites who lack the transportation necessary to visit them, or live in communities without much green space of any kind.

LWCF has helped Denver shrink its park access gap, creating places like Montbello Open Space Park. Once a vacant lot tucked between an industrial area and a low-income community, today it’s a native prairie landscape that features an outdoor classroom, a climbing boulder, play equipment, and trails. The Trust for Public Land drew funding from LWCF to create the park, in partnership with Environmental Learning for Kids, a nonprofit that connects youth with experiences in science and outdoor learning. 

Haynes envisions a future in which young people start connecting with nature as soon as they walk outside, and grow into adult stewards of those same places. She’s advocated for full LWCF funding to realize that dream. “Having that long-term vision, continuity, connectivity, and predictability with the funding allows us to think big,” she says.

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These diverse but unified voices rang clear. Congress voted in 2015 to extend LWCF for three years; when the fund expired again in 2018, the coalition kept the pressure on Congress, until legislators voted to permanently authorize it in February 2019.

Still, it would be another year before Congress addressed full funding. Senators introduced the Great American Outdoors Act on March 9, 2020; though temporarily sidelined by the pandemic, it passed the Senate on June 17 and the House a month later. The bill—and full funding for LWCF—was signed into law on August 4.

California Representative Nanette Diaz Barragán hopes that more of that money flows into cities. She cosponsored legislation which provides LWCF funding to create outdoor access in densely populated areas that need it most. “It’s my belief that regardless of where you live, regardless of your zip code, you should have access to open space, you should have access to clean air,” she says. “In so many communities of color and low-income communities, quality parks and green spaces are considered a privilege when they should be a right.”

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Pastor Martin Martinez is a member of Por La Creación, a public lands advocacy program rooted in faith-based stewardship whose members spoke up for LWCF. Growing up in eastern Los Angeles County, he sought refuge from difficulties at home in nearby San Gabriel Canyon. As an adult, he returned with his congregation to worship, conduct baptisms in the San Gabriel River, and lift their voices in song, feeling the reverberations of the canyon walls as the mountains sang back.

Martinez knew the healing power of the mountains; he saw it not only in himself, but in the young people he mentored as a youth pastor, many of them gang members, whose resolves softened in nature’s embrace.

Like so many people I talked to who’ve given years of time, creativity, and energy to achieving the long-held goal of a permanent, fully funded LWCF, Martinez is savoring this victory and reveling in the power of his community showing up and making themselves heard.

“It was a tremendous blessing for us to say, ‘Wow, we spoke out,’” Martinez said. “‘We did something and it created the change.’”

About the author
Shawnté Salabert
Shawnté Salabert
Shawnté Salabert is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer interested in the connections between humans and the natural world. Her work has appeared in Adventure Journal, AFAR, Alpinist, Backpacker, the California Sunday Magazine, Outside, and Sierra, among other outlets. She is the author of Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California. Shawntesalabert.com

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