Here’s a geography challenge: Starting in Midtown Manhattan, how can you get to deep forest by public transit in less than 90 minutes? The answer: by catching a commuter train or bus to Sterling Forest State Park, which straddles the New York-New Jersey border west of the Hudson. This 22,000-acre swath of nearly pristine woodland has 83 miles of trails, including an 8-mile section of the Appalachian Trail. Visitors come for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and cross-country skiing. The forest’s watershed also supplies drinking water to some 2.5 million people in New Jersey.
Just 20 years ago, however, developers were proposing to build office parks, golf courses, and thousands of homes in Sterling Forest. A coalition of state politicians, members of Congress, and conservation groups (including AMC), lobbied to buy the land and preserve it as a wild area. The money came from many sources, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the main source of federal funds to protect land for recreation. Since its establishment in 1965, the LWCF has provided more than $16 billion to protect land in all 50 states. None of this money comes from taxpayers. Instead, the LWCF is funded mainly by federal revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling.
Without LWCF money it would be much harder to protect ecologically valuable areas, such as Sterling Forest, from development or to create other types of recreation areas, such as urban parks and playgrounds. But the law that created the LWCF expires in September, so the fund could disappear unless Congress renews it. AMC and many other conservation groups are working hard to prevent this critical program from lapsing.
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a comprehensive program that touches many people,” says Susan Arnold, AMC’s vice president of conservation. “Losing this funding at the federal level would severely limit our ability to protect land and recreational opportunities.”
THE NATION NEEDS A LAND ACQUISITION PROGRAM
President John F. Kennedy proposed creating the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a letter to Congress in 1963. America’s “magnificent national parks, monuments, forests, and wildlife refuges were in most cases either donated by States or private citizens or carved out of the public domain,” Kennedy observed. But these sources were no longer adequate to serve a growing population.
“Americans are seeking the out-of-doors as never before,” Kennedy wrote. “The Nation needs a land acquisition program to preserve both prime Federal and State areas for outdoor recreation purposes.” As a commission created by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had recommended, Kennedy asked Congress to pass legislation that would create a Land and Water Conservation Fund to help federal and state agencies buy land to protect natural resources and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. Congress passed the law in 1964 with virtually no opposition, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it.
Initially the LWCF was funded with revenues from motorboat fuel taxes, sales of surplus federal property, and fees for recreation on federal lands. In 1968 Congress added another source: revenues from offshore leases for oil and gas development, which quickly became the main generator of LWCF revenues. That linkage embodies a political promise. “Companies developing oil and gas reserves in federal waters are using assets that are part of the public trust,” says AMC’s Arnold. “Taking a portion of federal revenues from those leases to acquire land for recreation is a way of compensating the American people.”
Money from the LWCF can be used for planning, land purchases, and developing or redeveloping recreational facilities such as bicycle paths, ball fields, and playgrounds. At least 40 percent of the money goes to federal agencies for projects that include adding new land to national forests and wildlife refuges, and acquiring inholdings (privately owned land) within the boundaries of national parks. The rest is available for grants to states and other federal purposes, which have included highway maintenance and historic preservation projects.
The LWCF has been crucial at the state level, providing more than 41,000 matching grants to states to create parks and playgrounds, conserve open spaces, and preserve access to public lands for hunting and fishing. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states have received more than $2 billion from the LWCF to protect resources in many popular locations, from Acadia National Park to Assateague Island National Seashore to multiple sections of the Appalachian Trail. (See “LWCF at Work.”)
Some of that money has supported the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Legacy Program, which provides states with grants to protect working forests—in some cases by placing conservation easements on privately held lands, in others by purchasing acres threatened with development. Pressure to develop land is intensifying as the U.S. population grows and suburban development pushes outward from metropolitan areas. According to USDA estimates, 10 million acres of private forests were developed between 1982 and 1997, and another 44 million acres of private forests could be converted by 2030.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to protect land with high resource values,” says Mark Zakutansky, AMC’s Mid-Atlantic policy manager. “The Forest Legacy Program has been instrumental in protecting working forest lands across the Northeast.”
SAVING STERLING FOREST
English settlers started mining and forging iron in Sterling Forest in the mid-1700s, but the woods around these small operations remained largely undeveloped. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the land was purchased by Pierre Lorillard II, founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Company, and later by railroad baron E.H. Harriman. In the 1930s the Harriman family, which had already donated land to New York State that would become Harriman State Park, just west of Sterling Forest, offered to donate its Sterling tract as well. But the Palisades Interstate Park Commission refused the offer, fearing it would not be able to manage a major expansion of its holdings. In 1954 the Harrimans sold their land to a private real estate firm called City Investing.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, City Investing’s development arm, the Sterling Forest Corporation (SFC), floated plans for Sterling Forest that included thousands of homes and corporate office space. Many local communities were alarmed by these proposals, and government leaders started to take notice. In 1979 the National Park Service bought 667 acres surrounding the Appalachian Trail at the northern end of Sterling Forest for $496,000. In 1986 New Jersey sought to buy a 2,000-acre parcel of the forest to protect its watershed then seized the land through eminent domain when SFC balked at selling it.
Conservation groups believed a broader strategy was needed. In 1988 they formed the Highlands Coalition, which included AMC, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, local chapters of the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, and many other advocacy groups across the Highlands—an expanse of forested ridges that stretches diagonally from northwest Connecticut through New York and New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. The coalition argued for protecting at least 15,000 to 16,000 acres of Sterling Forest, rather than piecemeal tracts, and called for a Forest Service study of the Highlands, a move advocates hoped would spur a government purchase.
Battle lines hardened in 1991 when SFC proposed to develop its remaining land with 14,200 homes, 8 million square feet of commercial and retail space, a 250-room resort, three golf courses, and a ski center. Shortly afterward the Forest Service released a draft study that recommended a public purchase of Sterling Forest. Several years of furious lobbying followed, as conservationists and regional politicians sought to raise enough money to buy Sterling Forest before SFC could finance its development plans.
“In a different, less vulnerable place, this plan would be welcome,” New York Gov. George Pataki wrote of the development proposal. “But the potential destruction of a watershed and outdoor recreational area for some 26 million people who live within two hours of Sterling Forest is much too high a price.”
Congress eventually approved $17.5 million from the LWCF, while New Jersey provided $10 million, and New York contributed $16 million. In 1998 the two states bought 17,500 acres of Sterling Forest for $55 million in federal, state, and private funds. Two years later, New York acquired another 2,218 privately held acres for $9.5 million, including $2 million from the Forest Legacy Program. And in 2006, the state bought a 575-acre parcel for $13.5 million. In total, the public purchase of Sterling Forest cost about $78 million, of which roughly one-fourth came from the LWCF.
Even today, development remains a constant threat in the surrounding Highlands. To provide steady support for conservation across the region, AMC and other members of the Highlands Coalition advocated successfully for passage of the 2004 Highlands Conservation Act (HCA), which authorized federal agencies to provide up to $10 million per year through 2014 in matching funds to help states conserve high-priority land and resources. The HCA is nested within the LWCF and targets a portion of LWCF spending toward projects in the Highlands.
Through 2014 Congress had appropriated a total of $17.25 million for land purchases under the HCA. AMC’s Zakutansky is optimistic that the law will be extended later this year. “All of the members of Congress who represent the Highlands support this program,” he says. “And pressure for residential development in the Highlands slowed down five years ago, during the recession. That means there are great opportunities now to protect key lands while market and construction activity are still relatively slow.”
THE END OF LWCF?
But a broader challenge lies ahead: maintaining the LWCF itself. The fund was authorized to operate for 50 years, from 1965 through 2015, and will expire in September unless Congress passes legislation extending it. The LWCF has strong support from both Republicans and Democrats nationwide. Last January, an amendment to an unrelated bill that would have reauthorized the fund and made it permanent narrowly failed to pass the Senate, missing by one vote.
“I don’t believe we should wait to reauthorize what I believe is, dollar for dollar, the most effective government program we have,” said Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., during floor debate. Burr has cosponsored a bill that would permanently reauthorize the LWCF. Another bipartisan bill would both reauthorize and fully fund the program.
Some members of Congress want to use LWCF money to address issues beyond the fund’s traditional mission, such as maintenance backlogs in national parks. But conservation advocates oppose diverting money to other uses. “The basic purpose of the LWCF is still valid and ought to be honored,” says Kathy DeCoster, vice president and director of federal affairs at The Trust for Public Land. “The fund has good support in Congress, but we have to work to make the case that it’s an effective program and doesn’t need major changes, especially if they dilute conservation outcomes.”
For years, advocates also have criticized Congress for underfunding the LWCF. Under current law, the fund is credited with $900 million annually. But that money can only be spent if Congress specifically appropriates it for designated projects. And the LWCF is not a dedicated trust fund, which would allow money placed in it to be spent only on conservation. So Congress routinely diverts unspent money from the LWCF and uses it for other purposes.
Through 2014, $36.2 billion had been credited to the fund—that is, made available in principle for spending on conservation. But Congress appropriated less than half of those funds, or $16.8 billion, for conservation projects and diverted more than $18 billion to other purposes.
As Congress debates the LWCF’s future this year, conservation advocates say President Kennedy’s original arguments for creating the program still hold true. So does Kennedy’s observation in his 1963 letter to Congress: “Actions deferred are all too often opportunities lost, particularly in safeguarding our natural resources.”
LEARN MORE: LWCF AT WORK
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has supported land acquisition, recreational development, and access to public lands ranging from remote backcountry tracts to urban parks. Over the program’s half-century, the AMC region has received more than $2.3 billion in LWCF grants.
LWCF Funding: $172 million
Success Story: Grafton Notch
Two million dollars from the Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by LWCF, was allocated in 2007 to protect this remote area of the Mahoosucs. Grafton Notch State Park includes a rugged stretch of the Appalachian Trail and part of the 39-mile Grafton Loop Trail.
LWCF Funding: $150 million
Success Story: Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge
A series of LWCF grants have been used to protect and expand the refuge, most recently in 2014, when LWCF funds were used to add 7,400 acres as part of the broader Androscoggin Headwaters project.
LWCF Funding:$123 million
Success Story: Camel’s Hump State Park
From 1967 through 1985, six LWCF grants were used to expand this park, which now covers 20,000 acres in northern Vermont.
LWCF Funding: $218 million
Success Story: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
In 1978, a $388,000 LWCF grant went toward enhancing this 34-island recreation area. The islands offer camping, paddling, hiking, and educational opportunities just a few miles from downtown Boston.
LWCF Funding: $72 million
Success Story: Roger Williams Park
More than $2 million total, from three grants, funded a series of projects to develop Roger Williams Park in downtown Providence. The 427-acre park is home to seven lakes, a zoo, a botanical garden, and other cultural sites.
LWCF Funding: $112 million
Success Story: Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
This 36,000-acre refuge encompasses the Connecticut River’s watershed from northern New Hampshire and Vermont down to Long Island Sound in Connecticut. Nearly $10 million in LWCF grants have aided in protection of land within the refuge. Additional grants have protected even more land within the 7.2-million acre watershed.
LWCF Funding: $319.5 million
Success Story: Sterling Forest
See main story.
LWCF Funding: $338 million
Success Story: Pinelands National Reserve
The vast Pinelands, which covers 1.1 million acres in the heart of heavily developed New Jersey, was designated as the first National Reserve in 1978. Two years later, the reserve received a $500,000 LWCF planning grant.
LWCF Funding: $295 million
Success Story: FDR Park
The 348-acre FDR Park—originally built by Frederick Law Olmsted and his brother, John—offers open space and facilities for walking, running, biking, golf, skateboarding, and more, all within urban Philadelphia. The park received a $500,000 LWCF development grant in 1981.
LWCF Funding: $214.5 million
Success Story: C&O Canal National Historic Park
This former industrial corridor is now a 185-mile recreation path and waterway, rich with historical landmarks. Cyclists can pedal from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh by connecting to adjacent paths.
LWCF Funding: $57 million
Success Story: Brandywine Creek State Park
Fourteen miles of trail crisscross this 933-acre park in Wilmington. The park was created in 1965, and in 1966 a $750,000 LWCF grant was approved for land acquisition. A 2002 LWCF grant added 29.5 acres to the park.
LWCF Funding: $283.5 million
Success Story: James River National Wildlife Refuge
The 4,325-acre refuge, created in 1991, is one of the nation’s foremost bald eagle habitats. It’s also a critical piece of the 118,000-acre Lower James River Important Bird Area, a corridor that protects a wide range of species.
Funding figures courtesy of the Land & Water Conservation Fund Coalition.