By Donella Meadows
–July 9, 1994–
At the edge of my town there’s an open field, kept mowed by a bunch of neighbors who play softball on it. At one wooded edge there’s a picnic bench and a kids’ sandbox. In the woods the land slopes down to a brook that’s deep enough for trout, but shallow enough for children to wade in.
Thanks to matching money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the town bought this land a few years ago from a willing seller at a fair price. A handcut sign rising out of a carefully tended flower bed commemorates this achievement. It reads: “Victor Hewes Memorial Field. A Cooperative Project for Outdoor Recreation. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior. State of New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development. Town of Plainfield Conservation Commission.”
For almost 30 years the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped in the acquisition of little parks and big parks, city parks, town parks, and additions to our national parks. The Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965 provided funds for government at all levels — federal, state, and local — to buy lands of public importance. The idea was to tax private concerns that profit from the nation’s resources and to give the money back to the people in the form of public lands. Some of the funds go to the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies. The rest go to the states for projects proposed by towns.
The money comes from three sources: a tax on motorboat fuels, income from surplus property sales, and (primarily) royalties paid by oil companies for drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
Congress initially authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund to receive $100 million a year from these sources. Over time that amount was increased. In 1987 Congress authorized payments into the fund of $900 million a year until the year 2015.
That’s what Congress authorized the fund to receive. It is not what Congress appropriates for the fund to spend.
Starting in 1981, the Reagan administration, unenthusiastic about conservation and needing to hide its rising deficits, budgeted Land and Water Conservation expenditures at zero. Congress didn’t take that suggestion seriously, but it was interested in hiding deficits too. So through the 80s it appropriated spending that ranged from $161 million to $335 million per year — while the fund continued take in $900 million per year. By now the Land and Water Conservation Fund has accumulated a theoretical unspent reserve of nearly $10 billion.
The money is not there, of course. It has gone into weapons, interest payments, and other government expenses. Even the most gung-ho environmentalists have no hope of getting it back.
They do have hope, however, of getting the appropriation back up to $900 million a year. That was one of Bill Clinton’s campaign promises. Instead, in last year’s budget-cutting zeal, Clinton cut Land and Water spending from George Bush’s level of $366 million to $209 million. Congress raised it to $254 million.
This year Clinton’s draft appropriation was still lower: $160 million. Beseiged by outraged faxes and phone calls, the administration raised it to last year’s level: $254 million. Congress is deciding right now what to do with that suggestion. It is in a cutting mood. “There is no money,” is the cry from a Congress boxed in by its own deficit-cutting targets, plus its refusal to look for serious cuts in the military budget.
One problem with the “no money” argument is that a few hundred million dollars makes an invisible dent in a deficit that runs in the hundreds of thousands of millions. Another problem is that the federal budget does not distinguish between spending and investing. Acquisitions under the Land and Water Conservation Fund are investments. They don’t just bring a benefit this year; they bring a continuing benefit, year after year. And when it comes to the remaining open land and clean water near population centers, investing in them now will be much, much cheaper than investing later — if they are there to invest in at all.
A coalition of environmental organizations has prepared a “wish list” of properties that could be bought this year, if the Land and Water Conservation Fund were fully appropriated. They include Mystic Lake, 15 miles from Riverside, California, and 30,000 acres in the Mahoosuc Mountains of Maine, just put on the market by the International Paper Company. The money could go to develop the Bronx River Trailway in New York and to Douglas, Garfield, and Humboldt Parks in Chicago. The Fish and Wildlife Service could acquire 2000 acres for the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. The National Park Service could add 474 acres of redwood forest to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. The Forest Service could buy a 2800-acre parcel for the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. These are just a few examples from a long list.
If we’d like to own these lands, or to own the parks our home towns might propose, we’ve got the money. It’s in the account. But that account will vanish into general government spending, unless we tell Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt and our Congresspeople, forcefully and soon, to use it for its intended purpose.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994