Editor’s Note: Since the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created by the federal government in 1965, more than $17 billion of its funding has been diverted for uses other than land and water conservation, according to LWCF’s records. But this year it’s in the worst financial trouble of its life. A proposal in June to eliminate its 2012 budget was followed in late July by restoration of $25 million, still far below its customary annual funding. In June, Sen. Jeff Bingman (D-NM) introduced S. 1265, which would amend the act that created LWCF to provide for its consistent and reliable funding. It stipulates that not less than 1.5 percent of funding should be for securing public recreational access to federal lands, but its chances of enactment are considered to be slim. A broad-based coalition of groups is looking for Congress to bolster LWCF’s funding when the legislature reconvenes next month. Principals of two firms that conducted public opinion research on the issue offer their conclusions here.
What gets voters agitated when they talk about the federal budget?
Sure, voices rise one moment over “spending like drunken sailors” while at the next moment, voters howl over potential cuts to a host of government programs, most notably Medicare. But get past those now predictable, first-blush comments and you’ll hear that what’s really bothering American voters is the distinct notion they have been conned.
There’s a real sense that while they were worried about carbs versus calories, and Macs versus PCs, a fast one got pulled on the American people, and they may be stuck with the mess.
Just 18 percent of American voters say they approve of the job the U.S. Congress is doing, according to a June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
The underlying feeling is that over the years the leaders in Washington have used sleight-of-hand to fund and run the government, claiming to support things that voters value while spending the money on their own pet projects. This is in part what’s eroding confidence in government and Congress.
The electorate may be increasingly cynical about the budget process, loopholes, and special favors, but it is willing to give Congress a chance to clean up its act.
Case in point: The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a fund derived solely from offshore oil and gas drilling fees, has always been intended to preserve America’s open spaces, provide recreational opportunities for all Americans and protect clean water.
While most Americans have never heard of the fund itself, they have probably experienced its investments in protecting national parks like Rocky Mountain, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, wildlife habitat, battlefields and other historic sites, working ranches and forests, and areas for outdoor recreation.
The fund has touched nearly every American, helping to protect state and local parks, trails and open space in 98 percent of the nation’s counties. Yet over the nearly half-century of the program’s history, Congress has consistently diverted LWCF monies for unrelated purposes, side-stepping the conservation commitment for these funds and putting the places Americans care about at greater and greater risk.
In national polling conducted by our bipartisan research team in July, American voters denounced this diversion of Land and Water Conservation funds.
Fully 85 percent said that we need to “honor Congress’ original commitment” to use a portion of the oil and gas fee payments for conservation purposes, while just 8 percent opted for the current practice of using these funds for other purposes.
At a time when so much divides our nation, the desire for Congress to stop raiding the fund unifies voters, cutting across all demographic, geographic and partisan lines.
And what do voters think should be done about it? They not only want Congress to stop digging a hole in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, they want them to fill it back up.
Among the vast majority of voters who reject the current practice of diverting money, most (60 percent) want Congress not only to stop taking money, but to repay what it has already taken over time.
Even more remarkably, voters’ commitment to the fund has grown stronger as our economic difficulties have persisted. Over the last three years, there has been an increase in support for continuing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
That’s right, an increase in support for land and water conservation funding even at a time of heightened public anxiety about the deficit and spending.
In 2009, 81 percent of the nation’s voters voiced support for continued funding of LWCF, increasing to 86 percent last year, and to 88 percent today.
Voters’ response on this issue is not simply a demand for honest budgeting.
Our research has consistently shown that Americans—whether Democrats, independents or Republicans—value conservation as something that benefits them personally, in the form of clean air and clean water, opportunities for outdoor recreation, a vital source of family-supporting jobs for many communities, and a legacy to pass down to future generations.
Protecting the Land and Water Conservation Fund offers Congress a unique opportunity, not only to stop the type of budgeting shell game that has driven confidence in government to historic lows, but also to honor a long-standing commitment to protecting the nation’s most special outdoor places.
Lori Weigel is a partner in the political and public affairs research firm, Public Opinion Strategies. David Metz is a partner in the public policy-oriented opinion research company, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.