Is the United States About to Lose Its Best Conservation Program?
By Tara Lohan
Time is running out for one of the U.S.' most successful—and least-known—conservation programs.
Virtually every county in the U.S. has benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed into law in 1964 with the goal of protecting natural areas and cultural resources and increasing recreational opportunities. In its more than 50-year history, the fund has helped 42,000 projects across the country, ranging from wilderness areas and historic battlefields to local tennis courts and trails.
"It's an amazingly unknown program for all that it has accomplished," said Kathy DeCoster, director of federal affairs at the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that helps acquire and protect natural spaces.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was originally authorized for 25 years and then extended another 25 years. When expiration loomed again in September 2015, Congress gave it a short three-year extension, which is now about to expire. If legislators fail to reauthorize the program before Sept. 30, the fund will immediately run dry and will no longer be able to dole out money, which in recent years has averaged about $450 million annually.
Proponents of the fund like to highlight that it does not rely on taxpayer dollars. Virtually all of the money for the fund comes from revenue generated by offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. A small fraction of the money comes from a tax on motorboat fuel and sales of surplus federal property.
"It's a balance, if you will," said DeCoster, "an asset-for-asset arrangement when you deplete one natural resource, then take some of those revenues and make sure the American people get something permanent back from that."
But if the fund isn't reauthorized and that dedicated source of funding is no longer available, it could have both ecological and economic impacts affecting local, state and national parks, as well the outdoor industry, an economic driver in many communities.
"It would be a threat to some of the major ways that people engage everyday with the outdoors and wildlife," said Mike Saccone, associate vice president for communications at the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.
Even ardent supporters of the fund have a hard time pointing out their favorite projects, because there are so many and they're so varied.
The money from the fund serves two main purposes. The first is to enable federal agencies such as the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service to acquire more public lands for recreation.
One of the big things these acquisitions accomplish is to secure "inholdings." These are areas of privately held lands that are within or adjacent to federal public lands and have high conservation or recreation value. The fund is used to protect these areas from development when there's a willing seller.
It's helped to bolster projects all across the country, including in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Everglades National Park and Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and California Coastal National Monument, to name just a few.
Shorebirds at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. The Land and Water Conservation Fund protected 5,486 acres of this important bird habitat. USFWS
The second aspect of the fund is a matching-grant program that helps states enhance their recreation facilities and planning. Local recreational opportunities have gotten a big boost from the fund, helping to support new hiking and biking trails, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and parks in urban communities and underserved neighborhoods.
"People think getting outdoors and engaging kids with nature always involves wilderness, when in fact, for the vast majority of families it's urban parks, trails, etc.—and those are the things that the Land and Water Conservation Fund supports," said Saccone.
Since 1998 some funds from the program have also gone to related federal programs, including the Forest Service's Forest Legacy program, which helps to preserve lands through conservation easements, and the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which helps to protect vital habitat for critical wildlife.
It also has helped acquire and protect areas of historical importance like the Women's Rights National Historical Park in New York, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Kansas and the Martin Luther King. Jr. National Historic Site in Georgia, as well as battlefields in Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
"The Flight 93 Memorial was also funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund," said DeCoster. "History doesn't stop being made, and the fund is the premier source of funding for that kind of work."
While hailed by many as an incredible success, the fund has also not been able to live up to its full potential. The Congressional Research Service reported last month that the fund has accrued $40 billion in revenue since its inception, but only $18.4 billion has been appropriated by Congress. The fund can accrue up to $900 million annually, but none of the money gets distributed until it's appropriated by Congress, and Congress does not have to appropriate all the money. In recent years about half has been appropriated, and the rest remains part of the general treasury to be used by other programs.
"Despite this history of underfunding, [the Land and Water Conservation Fund] remains the premier federal program to conserve to our nation's land, water, historic and recreation heritage," said a March 2018 letter from more than 200 members of Congress, which was sent to the chairman and ranking member of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
The fund has always had bipartisan support, even from the beginning. When the act authorizing the fund was passed in 1964, just one member of each house voted against it, according to a report issued last month by the Center on Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation organization.
In the five decades since, Americans have embraced outdoor recreation activities with gusto, which has meant big business. The trade group Outdoor Industry Association reported that each year the outdoor recreation economy rakes in $887 billion in annual consumer spending, creates $124.5 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue, and supports 7.6 million jobs.
Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, nearly nearly 47,000 acres of which were conserved by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. USFWS
The Trust for Public Lands has shown the fund is also a good investment. The organization's research found that for every $1 invested by the fund on acquiring federal public lands, $4 in economic value is generated over the next decade.
When it comes to the politics of the moment, the fund still has huge bipartisan support, with more than 230 cosponsors to legislation in the House and substantial support in the Senate as well. But action to reauthorize it has still stalled.
"It boils down to a bit of a bottleneck in the House Natural Resources Committee, where the chairman and some of the members don't see the Land and Water Conservation Fund as being as much of a positive as pretty much everyone else does," said DeCoster. "They control that agenda."
The committee's chair is Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has a notorious record of voting against environmental issues. In 2015 he called the fund a "slush fund" for the Department of the Interior.
One of the biggest champions of the fund has been Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has been placing holds on other pieces of legislation, trying to rally action from his colleagues or stall other legislation until action is taken on the fund.
"I've proposed numerous times this year that the Senate take up this issue to give it the fair consideration that it deserves," said Burr. "However, we've been denied a vote, even while bending over backward to accommodate my colleagues' objections."
Jonathan Asher, senior representative of government relations at the environmental nonprofit The Wilderness Society, explained that some Congress members are opposed to the idea of the federal government growing its landholdings. "Those voices, especially in the current administration where there is a big of a vacuum of leadership on land conservation issues, have gained prominence," he said.
In 2016 the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a report arguing that the Land and Water Conservation Fund should be retired, explaining that over the years it has been used to "grow the massive landholdings of the federal government." It advised directing federal dollars to maintenance of existing federal public lands.
"Congress should allow the [Land and Water Conservation Fund] to expire and enable more state and local government and private control of America's land and water," advocated the foundation report. "Sunsetting the fund will result in more efficient and accountable land management, creating and preserving opportunities for economic development, outdoor recreation and environmental protection."
Despite this opposition, environmental groups seem cautiously optimistic. While Saccone said he's "reasonably confident" Congress will do something before the fund expires at the end of the month, it's not clear what exactly that may be.
It's possible Congress will punt again on the issue and only reauthorize the fund for a short period.
Conservation groups are pushing for as much certainty as possible for the program, with the best result being full funding and permanent reauthorization. Second best would be a long-term extension, like another 25 years, and a high level of dedicated revenue for the fund.
"We've had pretty good appropriation numbers in recent years, but they can come and go and are always based on the whims of members of Congress," said Asher.
It's unlikely that a standalone piece of legislation would be passed at this point, but action on the fund could be included in another big legislative item that also needs to get passed. And there's one more avenue, which would be a potential "grand bargain," explained Saccone. The biggest win for conservation groups would be a package that addressed three related issues—the Land and Water Conservation Fund extension, funding for other wildlife conservation issues and addressing funds needed to remedy the backlog of maintenance on public lands and parks.
While that best-case scenario may not come true, proponents are still pushing hard for the fund.
"It is my sincere hope that we can reauthorize the Land and Conservation Fund before the end of the month to give vital conservation projects currently underway, and those in the planning process, the certainty they need to carry out their essential work," said Sen. Burr.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.