A federal funding measure that has sent $146.5 million to Alabama over the last five decades, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is on the verge of expiring at the end of the month if Congress does not take measures to renew the bill.
Alabama state parks face an uncertain future, but the expiration of the LWCF could hit even closer to home for many by eliminating funding from local parks that are not part of the state system, Kelly Garrison of the Nature Conservancy of Alabama explained.
“Stateside, the [LWCF] funds parks on a local level. Typically those small patches of grass that have swings and a slide. That’s what the money goes towards. There isn’t anyone out there that says having neighborhood parks is a bad thing,” Garrison said as she sat at the conference table of the Nature Conservancy office in the Landmark Building in downtown Birmingham.
The LWCF is not a “hippy-dippy” tax break for conservationists, Garrison said. The funding for the LWCF does not use taxpayer dollars and is funded exclusively from a small portion of royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.
Every county in Alabama has received financial assistance from the LWCF over the last 50 years. In addition to helping fund local parks, the LWCF has also helped protect and maintain places such as the Bon Secour and Cahaba National Wildlife refuges, Little River Canyon National Preserve, and Talladega, Tuskegee and Bankhead national forests.
“If you have a big patch of beautiful land, but people can’t access it without trails or a canoe entry point, then it doesn’t really do much good for people who may want to visit there. Those are the things that the LWCF helps fund,” Garrison explained. “We want to keep working lands working.”
The LWCF is crucial for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy to be able to maintain a level of funding. The group essentially acts as a broker for land deals, buying properties the state did not control, and holding onto them for future use.
“We will then maybe fold that land into part of a state park or some kind of wildlife refuge,” Garrison said. “Our goal is not to be a land owner. We want to move this land into the public trust. It’s about preserving the natural history of Alabama.”
Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, especially in terms of aquatic wildlife. However, Alabama also has one of the lowest levels of protected land in the country with only 4 percent of the state’s land being protected. Garrison said that it is unclear what will happen if the federal funding for LWCF expires at the end of September.
This is not the first time the bill has fallen under threat of expiration. When the LWCF was originally written, there was an end date. “We’ve reached that end date before, but this bill has always had wide bipartisan support,” Garrison said.
However, there are two main reasons why the bill could expire on Sept. 30. “It’s no surprise that Congress is not good at getting anything done. But this isn’t about the [LWCF] not having support. It’s not expiring because of that. It’s actually just a small piece of legislation. It gets passed by being grouped into larger bills that aren’t getting anywhere right now,” Garrison said.
The other reason is due to the pressures facing Congress on larger issues such as Planned Parenthood and the Iran nuclear deal.
“I don’t know what will happen. It’s very unclear at this point,” Garrison said. “There is a small glimmer of hope, though. When Congress gets back from the August recess, there is an energy bill that could be up for a vote that the [LWCF] could potentially be grouped into. But then the question becomes will Congress vote on a energy bill when they are facing these hot button issues.”