50-Year-Old Pot of Money Supporting AT Could Disappear
If you love the Appalachian Trail (AT), there is an important and time-sensitive story you need to know about before September of this year.
Really, if you love any trail, national or local park, recreation, natural heritage or watershed area, you need to read this.
Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has existed for over 50 years and is critical to the AT (and nearly every other open space, wilderness, wildlife, natural heritage or recreation site across the country). It has been called “America’s most important conservation and recreation program, which has saved places in every state and nearly every county in the United States (U.S.),” including substantial sections of the AT.
The LWCF is in serious danger of expiring by September 2018 unless it gets public support (aka, hikers) and Congress decides to renew it. If the LWCF disappears, the AT will lose critical and necessary annual funding it has relied on for five decades.
What the ATC’s President Is Saying
In an email directly to The Trek, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) president, Suzanne Dixon, wrote, “…the LWCF is an essential part in protecting the grand vision and the world-renowned identity of the trail; in preserving the natural, cultural and historical resources along the 2,191-mile trail; in sustaining recreation access and associated health benefits for millions of Americans; and in ensuring the trail’s characteristics are preserved for generations to come.”
While the AT receives funding from a variety of other sources, the LWCF is a critical and long-standing source of funding. In a recent email outreach letter to hikers and ATC supporters, Dixon explained both the obvious and not-so-obvious support the LWCF provides for the AT.
Dixon says the LWCF contributed to adding 250,000 acres of open space around the trail from Georgia to Maine, but also “…to improve recreational access for millions along the eastern U.S., protects scenic vistas…forests, meadows, wetlands, farmlands and areas of historic significance.”
She also says it supports living species on the trail. “Habitat protection is another reason why LWCF is so important today. Many species of wildlife — from hawks to bog turtles to black bears — currently thrive in the AT greenway. Without this funding, habitat loss and fragmentation are certain to impact wildlife. And, how we all enjoy and benefit from the trail will be impacted.”
Understanding the LWCF (In Hiker Terms)
While backpacking, have you ever reached into your food bag to find it empty? Sipped the last drops of water from your water bladder well before the next water source? Or run out of toilet paper when nature calls? Backpacking and hiking teach us such lessons in resource scarcity almost any time you’re on trail.
Similar to lack of food, water, or toilet paper on trail, a lack of funds to support them is essential and something that can often be overlooked.
LWCF 101: A Quick History Lesson
The idea for the LWCF was initially introduced by President John F. Kennedy (JFK) and later signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) in 1964 as “a sound financial investment” to actualize the “true potential of parks, forests and wildlife refuges.”
When he signed LWCF into law, Johnson said, “The land and water conservation bill assures our growing population that we will begin, as of this day, to acquire on a pay-as-you-go basis the outdoor recreation lands that tomorrow’s Americans will require.”
A few years after the LWCF was formalized, Johnson also signed the National Trails System Act and designated the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as America’s first national scenic trails. Doing so cemented LWCF funding to contribute to land acquisition and protection for the AT over the next 50-plus years.
The fund provides critical funding to federal, state, and local agencies for the acquisition of important lands, waterways, and wetlands. The ATC states that there are two main goals of the fund: 1) to provide recreation on public lands, and 2) to protect nationally significant natural, cultural and historic resources.
In its 50-plus years, it is estimated that the LWCF invested over $16 billion in land and water conservation and outdoor recreation across every state and several American territories.
“LWCF has been one of the most important sources for land protection and acquisition along the AT and dozens of other national parks and national monuments ,” says Jordan Bowman, public relations and social media manager. “To see it disappear would be a major blow to public land protections nationwide.”
Where Does Money for LWCF Come From?
While the LWCF is congressionally approved, LWCF money does not come from taxpayer dollars, but instead comes from earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing. Those earnings are given back to local, state, and federal conservation and outdoor recreation agencies and organizations in the form of grants.
The LWCF Coalition calls it a simple idea: “to use revenues from the depletion of one natural resource – offshore oil and gas – to support the conservation of another precious resource- our land and water.”
According to the legislation around the LWCF, Congress can appropriate up to $900 million each year that will be distributed as grants to state and local governments and federal agencies, including the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Both are partners of the AT. However, in reality LWCF almost never gives out that maximum amount. For example, in the federal budget’s fiscal year 2018, LWCF was capped at $425 million, not even half of the congressional intent of $900 million.
Where is LWCF Money on the AT?
LWCF money contributes to saving open spaces that are being lost to development, population growth, urban sprawl, but also for the betterment of unhealthy lifestyle factors like nature deficit and obesity. Even with LWCF funds, many special places and community treasures are lost each year because of low, unpredictable annual funding.
A report by the LWCF Coalition says, that “…this powerful array of tools has produced many successes over 50 years…,” but the demand and need to invest more in the protection of natural, cultural and recreation resources is critically important, even more than it is currently able to do.
The ATC wants people to know that only twice in its 50-plus years was the fund fully funded—not because of lack of oil and gas fees, but instead because funding intended for conservation purposes was later appropriated elsewhere.
In April 2018, the ATC wrote a position paper advocating for the total replenishment of the LWCF’s possible $900 million annual budget moving forward (from 2018 onward).
How Does the LCWF as Bank Account Work?
The LWCF acts like any other bank account—money goes in; money goes out (in the form of grants). But before it goes out for conservation and recreation efforts, approval is needed by Congress.
The annual maximum money put in can be up to $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). And later those funds are deposited into the LWCF and given to federal, state, and local entities in all 50 states in the form of grants.
LWCF programs can be divided into the “state side,” which provides grants to state and local governments, and the “federal side,” which is used “to acquire land, waters, and interests therein necessary to achieve the natural, cultural, wildlife, and recreation management objectives of federal land management agencies.” Funds support hiking trails, sports fields, playgrounds and bike paths, national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails, and ball fields.
However, there is a hiccup — the promise of “LWCF has been broken” in the past. The LWCF Coalition found that “each year $900 million from offshore royalties is deposited in the LWCF account in the federal treasury — yet more than $20 billion of those funds have then been diverted elsewhere.”
How Does LWCF Money Get to the AT?
Lynn Davis, director of federal policy and legislation at the ATC, emphasizes that “The ATC does NOT receive appropriations from the LWCF. Instead, grants from the LWCF are made to ATC partners—federal agencies and state/local governments and agencies.” Therefore, the AT receives grant money through its supporting partner agencies—NPS, USFS, trail clubs, and land trust partners at the state and local level.
The AT is a unit of the NPS and is managed under a special partnership between public and private sector partners led by the ATC. So when the AT receives money from local, state, and federal agencies, it is likely from the LWCF.
And as a corridor of some of the biggest conservation work on the East Coast, the AT is a major beneficiary of LWCF funding for a variety of activities, including species protection, restoration, and land acquisition for the trail and the adjacent land on either side of the trail. Often for land acquisition, LWCF funds are used to work with private landowners (farmers, ranchers, and foresters) to partner through voluntary conservation agreements.
If Not LWCF, Who Funds the AT?
While the LWCF is a major pot of money for the AT it isn’t the only financial supporter of the trail.
There are many funding streams that support and protect the AT each year, but LWCF is critical because it supports local, state, and federal partners along the entire trail. This is akin to flowing water sources throughout the trail, as opposed to only water in one section or one state.
In short, the AT is funded by a lot of funding sources, including ATC members, nonprofit and foundation grants, and private contributions from individual and corporate donations (roughly $7.6 million in 2017, according to a report by the Partnership for the National Trails). The same report shows the the immense and valuable donations of volunteer time, which in 2017 was tallied at 239,798 hours (equivalent to $5.78 million). But the LWCF is arguably the key monetary contributor all along the trail.
Where Is LWCF Funding Visible on the AT?
Over the past five decades, LWCF funding helped protect nearly 2,000 acres of some of the most valued land along the AT corridor, including Bear Mountain State Park in New York (the birthplace of the trail), Rocky Fork and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, preserved historic farmland between the Blue Ridge Parkway between the Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Nelson County, Va.; protected sensitive wildlife habitat in Pawling, N.Y., and improved side trails and recreational access near Bald Mountain Pond and Crocker Mountain in Maine. (See a longer list of how LWCF funding has helped the AT here).
Over the years and through its advocacy, and partnerships with the USFS and NPS and multiple state agencies, more than $180 million has been appropriated to secure critical land for the AT and to protect landscapes near the trail.
If the LWCF does not expire in September 2018, future funding is intended for Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Vermont to protect unprotected miles along the corridor.
LWCF funds even contribute to what is known as the Appalachian Landscape Partnership, a growing initiative in need of funds.
Why Does the AT Matter to LWCF?
The AT is the longest hiking-only (no bikes, no horses, etc.) footpath in the world, measuring roughly 2,191 miles in length and travels through 14 states along the Appalachian Mountain Range of the East Coast all the way from its Southern Terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the Northern Terminus in central Maine at Mt. Katahdin.
The ATC estimates that more than three million people visit the AT every year, including 3,000 people who attempt to thru-hike the entire footpath in a single year. And amazingly, nearly 25 percent of Americans live within one day’s drive of the AT.
Plus, the trail is a central place of conservation across the East Coast. A report by the LWCF Coalition says that the AT runs through 88 counties, and connects more than 75 public land units (federal, state, and local).
Davis of the ATC says that protecting and acquiring the land surrounding the AT is in many places the last significant remaining open space in the eastern U.S. “Adding more land, when it’s available through willing sellers, is critical as the eastern part of our country becomes more and more populated,” said Davis
LWCF money assists in buying and acquiring such land to preserve and add to the AT corridor. Davis says these efforts are every bit as important as some of the high-profile land campaigns out West. “The AT corridor is – and is increasingly becoming – a travel destination that helps sustain the economies of communities along the AT. And the corridor is important for what it protects – historical and cultural resources and an exceptional corridor of biodiversity.”
What Does the Appalachian Landscape Partnership Mean to the LWCF?
Since its inception, the LWCF has helped to secure significant landscapes and waterways for recreational enjoyment and to support habitats where wildlife can thrive on the AT. It has added open space around the trail and created a 250,000-acre greenway through its long 14-state path from Maine to Georgia.
The “AT greenway,” as it’s known. is important for several reasons. This north-south landscape provides scenic and recreational open space for residents in the populous eastern United States and keeps wildlife migratory routes intact. A more holistic view of protecting the entire landscape of the trail and surrounding greenway is known now as the the Appalachian Landscape Partnership.
Anne Baker manages the Appalachian Landscape Partnership for the ATC and says that this large landscape conservation project would be significantly impacted by the lack of LWCF funding. She calls the initiative one of the major sustainability efforts of the ATC. “Our landscape conservation program, which is co-convened with the National Park Service, is a forward-looking initiative that is intended to make certain the AT corridor is sustained for future generations,” said Baker.
The LWCF coalition is made up of over 1,000 groups (including the ATC) from the recreation, outdoor industry, landowner, conservation, historic preservation, small business, sportsmen, and veteran communities. All of these groups are working to support the reauthorization of the LWCF in order to ensure America’s most precious places can be conserved in the 21st century.
The coalition is organizing reports, an online petition, and more over this year to raise awareness and support. For example, the 52 Week Campaign takes one week each year where “a state or U.S. territory will be highlighted showcasing LWCF success stories from the federal, state, and local level, and opportunities that are on the horizon for LWCF.”
What Can I Do to Save the LWCF?
Like other budget fights on Capitol Hill, public (hiker) engagement is critical to saving the LWCF. And you can ensure that Congress listens.
The AT has relied on millions of supporters and public action to be what it is today. Now it’s up to us to ensure the continuity of the LWCF.
The ATC is advocating for the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF—all possible $900 million per year. Current legislation in the U.S. House and Senate to extend LWCF has impressive support from around the country, including 220 House members who added their names as co-sponsors of this important legislation. But it is needed to make certain passage of this legislation is not overlooked before Sept. 30, 2018!
Here are five steps you can take to save the LWCF.
- Sign the petition to protect the LWCF –I bet you can do it faster than you can eat a Clif Bar.
- Contact your congressional representative by phone, email, or visit and say, “I support the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for renewal this September!” (Make yourself memorable with a trail story or trail photo, too).
- Sign up for Beyond the Boundary, an e–newsletter on what is happening and getting involved in AT landscape conservation and advocacy efforts.
- Send a message to your senator or representative -It took me 57 seconds, faster than I can eat a Clif Bar.
- Get to know the LWCF Coalition (1,000-plus conservation and outdoor partners) working to save the LWCF-See the 52 week campaign.
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