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In March 2017, the U.S. Forest Service completed the purchase of a 78 acre parcel of land surrounded by National Forest in Henderson County, along the Big Creek Lodge section of the North Mills River, which is favored by anglers.

With the work of multiple partners, including Trout Unlimited and Conserving Carolina, the purchase of land was bankrolled by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal program to protect land, water and recreation resources throughout the U.S.

Whether purchases like this one will continue is in doubt because the future of the LWCF and the policy of federal land acquisition may be in jeopardy.

The Trump administration has called for an 85 percent cut to the fund. In addition, unless Congress acts to extend the program, the five-decade-old fund will expire on September 30, 2018. Even though the president has not called for a complete elimination of LWCF funding, his proposals would end land acquisitions by federal land management agencies including the Forest Service.

“Without the LWCF to fill in gaps and obtain key additions to National Forests and National Parks the public experience will be at threat and in many cases greatly impaired,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina, a Hendersonville-based land trust formerly known as the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.

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A decade before the 78-acre Big Creek Lodge acquisition, a developer drew up plans to build 80 residential units on the portion of land distinguished by a century-old lodge. Those development plans were snuffed out by the Great Recession. Tom Oreck, a conservation buyer, purchased the land in 2009 on behalf of Conserving Carolina. A conservation buyer is a private party with assets that share the goal of conserving high priority landscapes, according to Roe. The strategy gives conservation organizations more time to raise funds.

With a boost from the LWCF, the Forest Service purchased the Big Creek Lodge tract from the buyer guaranteeing continued public access. The total purchase for the Big Creek Lodge parcel by the Forest Service was $1.5 million.

“Because we are in a region with a good deal of public land, the LWCF is an important source of support,” Roe said. “If we weren’t able to rely on the funds we might never have been able to persuade a conservation buyer to step in.”

Since the inception of the program in 1964, the state of North Carolina has received nearly $250 million from the LWCF. A significant share of those funds have been used to support organizations, such as Conserving Carolina, complete costly conservation projects.

Jay Leutze, board president of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said potential cuts to the LWCF would also have an impact on the future management of Western North Carolina’s National Forests.

Currently the Forest Service is revising the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Management Plan, which is slated to be finalized in 2019 and will oversee the stewardship of more than 1 million acres within the National Forest administrative boundary in the North Carolina mountains.

“Some people believe public land is something we invested in back in the 1920s and 1930s and that our work is done,” Leutze said. “The LWCF is needed to make strategic land acquisitions to connect disjointed sections so we can make manageable units. It gets right to the core of what’s in a national forest management plan. The goal is to link up pieces that are owned by the public and try to make them manageable.”

Leutze is frustrated that while the footprint of the Pisgah National Forest may seem complete on maps, it’s not.

“My longstanding feeling has been that the Forest Service doesn’t do a good job communicating the fact that relatively little of the National Forest is owned by the public,” Leutze said. “You look at the map that they’ve published, and it looks like a third of Western North Carolina is public land. But when you dial down into the maps, you realize how unfinished those units actually are.”

According to the Trust for Public Land, the federal government actually owns 43 percent (515,564 acres) of the 1,204,556 acres within the National Forest’s administrative unit boundary. The 1.2 million acre boundary was established as the design of the forest in the early years of its creation.

“The goal isn’t to fill it in completely, but we need the units to work as a coherent whole and make strategic purchases from willing sellers to fill in gaps,” he said.

Fighting sprawl

Western U.S. legislators were inspired to begin the program after observing urban sprawl from their airplane’s window en route to the nation’s capital, Leutze said.

“LWCF was a reaction to rapid economics growth after World War II,” he said. “The fund has been the driver of much of our success in the conservation community.”

Established by Congress more than five decades ago, the LWCF invests funds from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. Each year $900 million is deposited in the LWCF account in the federal treasury, though not all of the funds are appropriated to conservation or recreation projects by Congress and can be used for unrelated budget items. The funds can be allocated to three general purposes: federal land acquisitions, state-level matching grants for outdoor recreation projects (such as ball fields, greenways, swimming pools, etc.), or a catch all category referred to as “other federal purposes”. The non-profit LWCF Coalition said that since the program’s inception over $20 billion of LWCF funds have been diverted to a range of unrelated budget items.

Among the most significant projects the LWCF funded in North Carolina, according to Leutze, was the 1,800-acre purchase of Hump Mountain in 1981 after a 14-year negotiation with the owners. The $1 million acquisition ($2.8 million in current-year dollars) enabled the relocation of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) through the Roan Highlands in Avery County. Last May, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy purchased an additional 324 acres on Big Hump Mountain adjacent to the trail. The organization will own the property until funds are available for it to be added to the Cherokee National Forest.

“The Appalachian Trail would not exist without the LWCF,” said Morgan Sommerville, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Southern regional director. “Over the years the LWCF has provided the bulk of the funding that assures people have access to the A.T. and so we can preserve the trail experience. Most of the A.T.’s right of way is protected, but the corridor surrounding the trail is narrow in places. We still have plenty of work to protect it. As long as the funds are there we are going to do what we can to protect the corridor.”

Land grab or conservation?

Not everyone is a fan of this land acquisition policy. Critics have argued that the program is a federal land grab and in need of reform.

Tate Watkins of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, and Greenville, S.C., said the LWCF program should fund necessary management functions rather than adding more land to the federal estate. Funds from the program cannot be used for maintenance.

“The majority of spending has gone toward acquiring additional federal lands,” he said. “You could argue that there are other more pressing needs, like the billions of dollars in overdue maintenance projects facing the National Park Service and Forest Service. Acquiring more federal lands when we cannot adequately maintain our existing public lands is irresponsible conservation.”

Sommerville of the ATC concedes that providing maintenance is a hidden cost to managing public land. With regard to the Appalachian Trail, “there is a quid pro quo” with the federal government to maintain the trail and its corridor, Sommerville said. When federal land is added to the A.T. corridor, his organization provides a system of volunteers to manage maintenance and improvements equal to “millions of dollars.” Last year, Sommerville said, 5,939 volunteers provided 239,798 work hours throughout the trail corridor.

Leutze believes that strategic purchases can help public land managers accomplish more with less rather than adding to their burden.

“Just because the government has stopped funding maintenance doesn’t mean that we can stop fixing what’s broken in the units,” Leutze said. “The Forest Service is not buying disjointed pieces of land, it’s trying to link pieces that are owned by the public to make them more manageable. It’s expensive to manage disjointed units. Acquiring land can save you money if you do it strategically.”

For example, in 2010 the USFS purchased 88 acres of land using LWCF funds which was added to the Pisgah National Forest in McDowell County to provide more direct access for hikers and emergency rescue units to Catawba Falls. The McDowell County Emergency Management responds to at least one critical rescue per month near the falls. Prior to the land purchase, injured hikers were lifted by air, a far more expensive evacuation.

Funding at stake

The  Trump administration’s budget proposal has proposed an 85 percent decrease in LWCF funds for the Department of Interior, which oversees U.S. National Parks, and the Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service.

In Congress, the effort to restructure or eliminate the LWCF has been led by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“The battle is heating up,” Leutze said.  “Bishop has said he will run for his last term in Congress in 2018 and has pledged he will do everything he can to undermine this program. He’s looking at a clock that’s ticking and looking at the political situation.”

Despite Bishop’s efforts, the popular program has bipartisan support in Congress. In fact, among the program’s champions is U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina.

A spokesperson from Burr’s office told CPP that “the LWCF is one of the most successful conservation programs in our nation’s history, and it costs the taxpayer absolutely no money. By using royalties paid from offshore oil and gas revenues, the LWCF is an excellent source of funding to preserve and maintain our national parks, historic battlefields, and public lands for generations to come. This program has not only bipartisan support, but cross-country support as well. Senators and Representatives from Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and more are cosponsors of legislation to permanently reauthorize this program. LWCF doesn’t pick counties or projects by party affiliation, and it helps put plots together that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to an outdoor recreation economy that produces more than $1 trillion each year and supports 9.4 million jobs.”

On November 20 the U.S. Senate recommended allocating $400 million for the LWCF in its budget appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2018, the same level as its FY 2017 funding. The U.S House of Representatives appropriations bill included $275 million for the LWCF. The Trump Administration has proposed slashing the LWCF to $64 million.

While a loss of funding would have an impact, supporters of the LWCF are concerned that the program could be eliminated. The LWCF is slated to expire on September 30, 2018. In 2015, Congress granted a three-year extension. Another extension is required for the program to continue.

Despite bi-partisan support in Congress, Roe of Conserving Carolina isn’t placing any bets just yet. “I don’t pretend to be able to predict what D.C. might decide to do,” he said.  “I would have to think that at the end of the day wisdom will prevail and the funds will be renewed.”

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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