SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, wants to reform the decades-old Land and Water Conservation Fund because it has strayed drastically from its original intent, and instead of helping states, it is gobbling up their land.
The fund has been used to "vastly expand the federal estate," and is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior with no accountability or transparency, he said.
"We really don't know where this money is going. I call it a slush fund for the Department of the Interior," Bishop said during a Thursday teleconference to unveil his draft legislation.
Environmental groups slammed Bishop's proposal, saying it would gut a key conservation tool used for decades to protect wildlife and recreation access.
"(The fund) has proven to be the most cost-effective tool available for conservation programs in the United States. Congressman Bishop's proposed legislation not only fundamentally changes (the fund), it also flies in the face of the values of anyone who hunts and fishes," said Land Tawney, president and chief executive officer of Back Country Hunters & Anglers.
But Bishop said the bill, as originally passed, was supposed to provide at least 60 percent of its allocated funding to state or state-side programs for the purpose of preserving, developing or enhancing the outdoor experience for residents.
Over time, amendments have flipped the funding ratio so just 12 percent of the money goes to states, Bishop said, adding that in the history of the fund, 62 percent of the money — or nearly $17 billion — has gone into federal land acquisition.
Bishop said, too, at least 19 states have used the money for eminent domain projects, which was not part of the law's original intent.
"I am not alone in calling for improvements to the law. States and other groups who want the program to work like it was originally intended to work have been calling for improvements to the statute," he said.
Bishop's reform package calls for:
- Fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million for a period of seven years and requiring at least 45 percent of the money go to states or state-side programs.
Providing only minimal funds for federal land acquisition.
Freeing up money for a $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
Providing grants up to $2 million to cities to rehabilitate aging recreation facilities.
Bishop's reforms are under fire, however, because of allocations to create a pilot office to streamline off-shore permitting of energy development and an offshore energy technology hub.
"In spite of its 50-year track record of success, Rep. Bishop is proposing we kill the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s primary purpose and turn it into a handout for special interests like oil companies, giving away the money that should preserve our American lands for all Americans," said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.
"There is no reason to gut this popular program and divert money away from our public lands,” Rokala said.
But Bishop said it is only fair — and right — to put some of the money back into the arena where it was derived.
The primary source of funding comes from fees paid to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement by oil companies drilling offshore for oil and gas.
Congress let funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapse in September.