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Interior secretary reins in land grab law

TAGS: Policy
Department of the Interior David Bernhardt.jpg
Secretarial order offers some improvements in how Interior Department will implement Land & Water Conservation Fund.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued a secretarial order on Nov. 13 regarding the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which prioritizes the input of local governments and leaders. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) said the action should offer an important return to local confirmation of any land acquisitions and will help stop unchecked land grabs by the federal government.

The Great American Outdoors (GAO) Act, signed into law in August, gave federal agencies free rein to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year of LWCF funding for the sole purposes of acquiring new private land without any oversight from Congress. The landmark GAO Act uses royalties from offshore oil and natural gas to permanently and fully fund the LWCF at $900 million a year to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the nation.

The LWCF was established by Congress in 1964 to ensure access to outdoor recreation resources for present and future generations and to provide money to federal, state and local governments to purchase land, water and wetlands for the benefit of all Americans. The funds enable state and local governments to improve park and other recreation areas in their communities by rehabilitating and upgrading existing parks, creating brand new parks in places that have none and developing and expanding trail systems that link communities to each other and to additional recreation opportunities.

Prior to Senate passage, the Public Lands Council (PLC) and NCBA sent a letter signed by 48 livestock and natural resources groups highlighting what they said was a “blatant conflict by pairing the mounting disrepair of current land under federal control and allowing rampant acquisition without congressional oversight.”

NCBA executive director of natural resources and PLC executive director Kaitlynn Glover said the secretarial order offers some improvements in how the interior department will implement LWCF, and while the fund is a “barrel full of lemons,” the action by the secretary makes a little bit of lemonade.

The secretary emphasized that any acquisitions on the federal side must be voluntary and must be from willing sellers because these acquisitions can fundamentally change local communities, Glover said in a recent podcast.

The order also increases flexibility for how states and local communities spend and match LWCF grants. In addition, it honors the U.S. Department of the Interior’s commitment to be a good neighbor by giving states and communities a voice in federal land acquisition.

An important component is the requirement for written expression of support from both the state governor and local authorities about any action. “Local input is critical,” Glover said, adding that local affirmation of any purchase is going to be for the benefit of the community.

Earlier this year, Bernhardt established a GAO Act implementation task force to develop a department-wide strategy that maximizes the impact of the act. The task force and agency leaders worked with superintendents, refuge managers, tribal school supervisors and state directors, as well as with members of Congress, interest groups and the general public, to inform the agency’s approach. Through this thoughtful process of listening to a broad spectrum of voices, DOI was able to set the foundation for what a successfully executed program should generate for the department and the American people.

“Given the responsibility to manage this unprecedented conservation investment, Interior must carefully evaluate each action to maximize the impact of every dollar. We also must work collaboratively with our many partners,” said Margaret Everson, counselor to the secretary and chair of the GAO Act Task Force. “We are committed to managing these resources in partnership with the states and others in the conservation community. During our deliberations on how best to implement [the GAO Act], we heard from a number of those partners, and the policy directives embodied in this [secretarial order] reflect those conversations.”

"The LWCF was originally created to be used as a discrete tool to strengthen recreational opportunities for local communities and improve public lands management," Glover said in a statement released by NCBA. "States and local stakeholders know best what their communities need and should be directly involved in these decisions. Ranchers appreciate Secretary Bernhardt's work to make certain LWCF cannot be used as a tool for rampant, unchecked acquisitions that would compromise the health of western landscapes and federal agencies' ability to manage the lands and waters already under their purview."

However, Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, criticized the move, saying Congress was clear and explicit about what it wanted from DOI,  specifically calling for 40% of LWCF funds to go to federal land protection that can be used to help parks begin to meet their land acquisition needs. The National Park Service has been underfunded for years, creating a more than $5 billion backlog in land acquisitions.

“Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s latest efforts to sabotage the successful implementation of LWCF by not adequately addressing the National Park Service’s land acquisition backlog -- and adding additional layers of bureaucracy -- is an unconscionable violation of Congress’s intent,” Francis said. “This latest order is unacceptable and demonstrates bad faith on the part of Secretary Bernhardt, and we encourage Congress to finish its work on [the fiscal 2021] LWCF spending without regard to DOI’s inappropriate attempt to rewrite this incredibly popular and successful program.”

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