After over 50 years of repeatedly having its coffers raided by Congress, the widely beloved Land and Water Conservation Fund will now enjoy full and permanent funding thanks to the Great American Outdoors Act. Reaction to the act’s passage was like the readout from a stress meter on the San Andreas fault, highlighting a rift that exists in today’s conservation community. As the legislation made its journey through the House and Senate and onward to its eventual signature by Donald Trump, hook-and-bullet conservation organizations repeatedly erupted in celebration while other, less recreation-focused, groups offered a more measured response.
Ducks Unlimited’s chief executive, Adam Putnam, labeled the passage of the act as “one of the great conservation achievements of our lifetime.”
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Land Tawney said the act was “a once in a generation piece of conservation and public access legislation,” adding that sportsmen and women “will revel in this win for our lifetimes.”
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called it “the most important conservation bill to go before the U.S. Senate in decades.”
That is just a small sampling of the gushing praise offered at the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. Virtually every conservation organization representing hunters and anglers issued statements proffering the act as a monumental, generational, or even once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.
Meanwhile, Brett Hartl, government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity was quoted as saying: “You have to give kudos to the Republicans for shifting the conversation so far to the right that the premise has been agreed to—that we should fund conservation with the destruction of the earth.”
Hartl’s comment reflects a view held by critics of the Great American Outdoors Act: Since the act draws its rather generous funding from the sale of permits for oil and gas drilling on federal land, the thinking goes, it shows at least tacit support for the ongoing use of fossil fuels and may even discourage some groups from addressing climate change. It’s a deal with the devil, many of the act’s detractors believe, one that serves to normalize fossil fuel extraction and the oil and gas industry.
The act’s supporters argue that oil and gas leasing on federal land is likely to continue for some time whether we like it or not, and thus we might as well use the resulting royalties to buy batting cages or backcountry shitters instead of a few more F-35 fighters. Some point out that the government is beginning to offer leases for alternative energy like wind and solar. The income from these new sources may eventually outstrip and even replace permit fees from oil and gas, a shift that would transform the ecopolitics of the act and render concerns of an unholy alliance moot. In the meantime, they say, we need to get badly needed funding for conservation where we find it.
Critics of the bill have also raised warnings about the potential for the fossil fuel industry to use Great American Outdoors Act as a weapon in the public relations war surrounding continued fossil fuel extraction. And that potential is already being realized. On June 17, Lem Smith, vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, said: “There is broad support for important programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is almost entirely funded by revenues generated by offshore oil and natural gas production. These programs underscore the need to continue safe development of domestic offshore energy reserves … Policies that end or limit production in federal waters would put these essential conservation funds in doubt.”
In a release titled “Public land conservation courtesy of the oilfield” that appeared after passage of the act, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said: “You’re welcome! Oil and natural gas production on non-park, non-wilderness lands will now help meet the mounting needs of our national parks … and now onshore public lands development will contribute directly to conservation … Without the royalty payments we provide, the conservation anticipated by this bill isn’t possible.”
None of this takes away from the meaningful accomplishments of the Great American Outdoors Act, nor does it erase the myriad positive impacts the act will have on outdoor recreational opportunities, the massive $887 billion outdoor recreation economy and the 7.6 million jobs it provides, and the needy and impoverished communities around the country that the LWCF has served for more than half a century. It’s important and long-overdue that we catch up on the $12 billion backlog of maintenance on federal lands. Resolving this backlog will also hamstring anti-public lands politicians and special interests, which have long cited the backlog’s bloated figure as justification for their efforts to sell-off and privatize public lands.
All of this makes the Great American Outdoors Act undeniably Good. But it doesn’t make it a generational conservation milestone.
It’s worth noting that it might be more appropriate if the LWCF was named the Land and Water Recreation Fund. Those who lavish deserved praise on the LWCF commonly cite both iconic and little-known swaths of land across the U.S. that the LWCF has helped preserve—like Grand Canyon National Park, the White Mountain National Forest, Acadia National Park, and the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. But vast sums of LWCF dollars have been dedicated to providing and improving recreational opportunities—the city parks, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, sand dunes to drive ATVs on and so forth that are commonly highlighted amongst the LWCF’s accomplishments. All of these recreational opportunities are inarguably positive, but they’re not conservation.
In between the hype and the criticism lies the truth: that the LWCF is an important program that has made significant and important contributions to conservation and outdoor recreation throughout its more than 50-year history. Now reliably funded for the first time thanks to the Great American Outdoors Act, it will provide meaningful support to the enormously important U.S. outdoor recreation economy that breathes life into small towns across America and engenders generation after generation of conservation-minded citizens.
But none of this justifies breathless celebration of the passage of the act. Those who have repeatedly engaged in such celebration over the last few weeks could rightly be accused of being complicit in the ongoing effort to move the conservation community’s goalposts ever rightward or of creating a false sense of complacency amongst conservation-minded voters as we limp our way into one of the most consequential election cycles in American history.
It should be lost on no one that, at the apex of the Trump administration’s relentless effort to dismantle many of our nation’s bedrock environmental policies, with the Clean Water Act neutered, with the ecocidal incubus that is Pebble Mine resurrected from the dead, with regulations on methane emissions eliminated, with the truly meaningful and existentially critical work of advancing legislative frameworks like the Green New Deal still barely underway, vitally important cogs of the conservation community are indulging in repeated victory laps, roistering the resurfacing of tennis courts in suburban New Jersey and fixing of boardwalks in Yellowstone.
Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act was and is worthy of a tempered round of applause. But despite the fund’s long-standing accomplishments and its importance to preserving our system of public lands, its reliance on an industry which is driving human civilization to the brink of extinction cannot be simply waived away or ignored. Like it or not, there are ideological battles ahead that will require the conservation community to choose between adopting a principled stance against any new form of fossil fuel extraction or fading into useless obscurity. Ultimately, it won’t matter whether the Land and Water Conservation Fund buys us a few more national forests or wildlife refuges if we are headed down a path of unabated anthropogenic global warming—one where those forests wither at the hand of pests, disease, fires and desertification and where wildlife falls prey to wave after wave of extinction, unable to adapt quickly enough to rapidly disappearing and altered habitat. There’s little point in buying up and conserving something that we intend, in fairly short order, to turn to dust.
Instead of dismissing the Faustian bargain cemented in place by the act, conservation leaders should acknowledge this inherent paradox and issue a stated commitment to transitioning the LWCF’s funding away from dirty fossil fuels. Likewise, these same voices must not manufacture hope from illusion by overstating the potential of the LWCF and other recreation-focused programs to contribute to the future task of conserving clean air, clean water, healthy habitat and wild lands, which pales in comparison to countless other measures and programs that are either being eliminated before our eyes or await our dogged efforts to advance.