Washington Watch, August 2014

LWCF 50th Anniversary Report Released

On July 23, 1964, the House of Representatives passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Act by voice vote.  President Lyndon Johnson signed the bipartisan bill into law on September 3 of that year. This landmark legislation established a dedicated and permanent means for the conservation and protection of America’s irreplaceable natural, historic, cultural, and outdoor landmarks. 

Fifty years later on July 23, 2014, a bipartisan group of conservation and recreation leaders in the U.S. Congress joined the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Coalition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act enactment. The occasion was kicked off by the release of the full new report, 50 Years of Conserving America the Beautiful (pdf), at a press conference with Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA-8) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4). The report covers over 100 treasured places across the country protected by LWCF, highlighting the public values they represent to the American people. The report also makes policy recommendations to fully fund, strengthen, and improve LWCF as it enters its sixth decade. 

Later that day, the LWCF 50th anniversary celebration continued in the U.S. Capitol to highlight the benefits of LWCF funding for hunting and fishing access with Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Mark Udall (D-CO) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and members of the sportsmen community. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell also made a guest appearance at the gathering, which closed with an exciting elk-calling demonstration by celebrity hunter Randy Newberg.

This September 3, and again as Congress returns from its summer recess in September, additional activities can be expected that continue honoring LWCF’s 50 years of success.

Appropriations Update

Before Congress recessed for the summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft Interior appropriations bill (technically called a “Chairman’s mark”) that provides funding for a number of conservation programs. The Congress is now out through August and Labor Day, returning on Sept 9 or 10, so the Senate Committee’s draft is just a marker bill to set up potential future negotiations. The House version of the FY 15 Interior bill was approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on July 15, but no further action was taken. Therefore everything waits, likely until after the mid-term elections.

First and foremost, there is good news on funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), especially for federal agency land conservation projects. The Senate bill funds LWCF at $340 million total–just $10 million shy of what the President proposed for discretionary spending and higher than the current enacted level of $306 million, and included funding for federal agency projects that would receive funding under this scenario. The House version (view pdf summary of bill) cut LWCF in half to $152 million, and did not provide any funding for federal agency projects. It also cut the Forest Legacy Program by 50 percent from current-year levels.

Like the House bill and last year’s final legislation, the Senate draft sets aside $3 million of LWCF state grants for a nationally competitive program that is intended to support close-to-home outdoor recreation and open space projects that will make a difference in local communities. Pre-applications for the first round of these competitive grants under this new LWCF set-aside were due August 15 and review is underway through the National Park Service.

The land acquisition portions of the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund (Section 6) program historically have also been funded from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The FY 2015 President’s Budget included $50 million for the program – all out of LWCF – including $29.1 million for acquisition. The House bill included $49.227 million for the program and $27.125 million for acquisition, with only the acquisition piece funded from LWCF. The Senate draft includes $40 million for the program from LWCF and $19.1 million for acquisition. Congress will need to determine the final funding amount for Section 6 and how much will be derived from LWCF.

In other news, the Community Forest Program is funded in the Senate draft at $2 million – same as the enacted level and the House proposal, so that program – while small – is holding its own. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act program was funded at $34 million, level from last year and same as the House proposal. Both the House and Senate Defense Appropriations bills included a $15 million increase over the President’s budget request in FY 2015 for the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program. The amount in both bills is $58.404 million.

The House and Senate bills differ on some major policy issues, including how to fund the cost of wildfires, EPA regulations, endangered species listings, and more.  However, further discussion of these items in either the House or Senate is likely to wait until after the mid-term elections. As in previous years, a final Interior Appropriations bill could be wrapped up in a larger “omnibus” appropriations package that lumps together what are otherwise separate appropriations bills.

It is also highly likely that Congress will act on a short term “continuing resolution” or “CR” in September – before the October 1 start of the new federal fiscal year 2015 – that will keep the federal agencies funded for a few months while the larger debate over funding levels and policy gets resolved.

House and Senate Agree on Transportation Funding Level

A pressing matter facing Congress before its August recess was extending and financing federal surface transportation programs. The current authorization bill (MAP-21) expires on September 30. Additionally, the Highway Trust Fund, the federal financing mechanism that collects gas taxes and distributes the receipts to the states for federal transportation spending, was running extremely low on money. Without additional money, the fund would have cut disbursements to the states in the middle of the summer construction season. The House and Senate initially disagreed on the amount of time and money they wanted to buy for the Highway Trust Fund, but in votes taken on July 31 Congress settled on providing $10.8 billion and an extension until May 31, 2015. House and Senate committees have already started working on a long term reauthorization to replace MAP-21, but the election year and financing problems have strongly affected and complicated the legislative process.

Conservation Tax Incentive and IRA Rollover Provisions Pass House

The quest to reinstate the expired conservation tax incentive passed a major milestone on July 17, 2014, when the House of Representatives approved a bill to make permanent the enhanced tax incentive for the donation of qualified conservation contributions. Typically these contributions are conservation easements, but a donation of an entire interest by the donor also qualifies. The legislation passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 277-130. 

This provision was packaged with a few other tax measures in one bill, H.R. 4719, that also included a provision to permanently allow an individual over the age of 70-1/2 to donate up to $100,000 to a charity directly from his or her IRA without incurring tax on the withdrawal. This measure is of great interest to charitable institutions across the country, and The Trust for Public Land was one of more than 850 organizations that signed a letter (pdf) of support for both the IRA rollover and the conservation incentive provisions.

It is likely that the vote in favor of H.R. 4719 would have been even stronger but for a disagreement over whether the costs of the provision needed to be offset elsewhere in the budget. No offset was included, and this will likely be an issue in the Senate.  While a permanent extension remains the goal, it is more likely that a two-year extension will be the final result. The “tax extenders” bill pending in the Senate provides for a two-year extension intended to serve as bridge to overall tax reform. That legislation will come to the Senate floor for a vote if an agreement can be reached on the amendment process.  Action could come in a lame-duck session of Congress after the November mid-term elections.

Community Forest Program – Call for Applications

The U.S. Forest Service recently released its call for applications (pdf) for the coming round of Community Forest Program (CFP) grants. CPF funds the preservation of threatened private forest land for public recreation, wildlife habitat and water quality protection, and sustainable forestry.

A CFP grant – which may not exceed $400,000 – will pay up to 50% of the property’s acquisition. The property must be privately held, at least five acres, and at least 75% forested. Moreover, grant funding may only be used for fee acquisitions. 

It is too soon to tell exactly how much funding will be available to fund CPF grants because Congress is currently working on the federal budget for the coming federal fiscal year. However, CFP typically receives $2 million. Despite the relatively small amount of money for a national program, The Trust for Public Land has successfully leveraged CFP grants with nonfederal funds to create community forests in Oregon and Vermont.

CFP applications are due to State Foresters (pdf) by Jan. 15, 2015.