Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Obama administration must remain accountable to Congress if it hopes to receive guaranteed funding for land acquisitions and conservation, a top Senate appropriator said today.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that he is concerned mandatory funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund could impede lawmakers’ oversight role.

The administration in its 2014 budget for the first time asked Congress to provide mandatory funding for a portion of the $600 million it requested for LWCF. The proposal would eventually fund the program with mandatory dollars at its maximum annual $900 million.

“What it doesn’t do is allow, sort of, not just oversight, but members to be able to indicate their local preferences,” Reed said at a hearing of his panel today to examine the agency’s $11.7 billion request for 2014, which is a significant bump over current sequestered levels. “What’s an important project in Alaska or Nebraska or Rhode Island?”

Jewell, who in her former job as CEO of outdoor retailer REI lobbied senators for LWCF funding, said that the nearly 50-year-old program is annually under threat — it is currently funded at just more than $300 million — and that mandatory funding is necessary.

She suggested LWCF could follow the collaborative example of the federal Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, which oversees the acquisition of migratory bird habitat and includes members of Congress.

LWCF funding is “certainly not something that needs to be driven by us,” Jewell said. “It’s something I think we could drive collaboratively.”

The budget proposal for $600 million for LWCF in 2014 and $900 million in 2015 will be a tough sell, particularly in the Republican-controlled House, where fiscal conservatives have balked at the idea of acquiring more federal lands at a time of deficit cutting.

But proponents of LWCF, including some Republicans, say investments in federal land acquisitions pay dividends in the form of enhanced outdoor recreation, which is responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity annually, according to trade groups.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Reed’s appropriations counterpart in the House, has said he could support full mandatory funding for LWCF if it is paired with an extension of mandatory payments for Western counties.

In a letter sent late last month to Reed and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the subpanel’s ranking member, five Senate Republicans and dozens of Democrats urged robust funding for LWCF and noted that the Senate voted 76-22 last year to provide $1.4 billion for LWCF over two years.

Republican signatories included Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

Thirty senators, including Burr, have co-sponsored S. 338 to provide full permanent funding for LWCF, though Reed is not among them.

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