Blog Post

Funding Conservation: Contrasting Approaches in Federal Programs

Apr 24, 2018 | Margaret A. Walls

On March 20, 2018, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” ran a story on a potential looming crisis for two long-standing federal laws: the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act and the 1950 Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (often called the Dingell-Johnson Act). The two laws generate funds for state wildlife conservation from federal excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing gear, and archery equipment, and a requirement that states use revenues from hunting and fishing licenses for wildlife and fishery conservation and management.

According to the story, the simple problem is that Americans don’t hunt and fish as much as they used to, jeopardizing the funding flows for these conservation programs. The figures derive from a US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) survey showing that hunting has declined precipitously in the United States in recent years. In 1991, 7.3 percent of the adult population said that they hunt; by 2016, the figure had dropped to only 4.4 percent. Participation has declined for fishing too—FWS reports a decline from 19 percent in 1991 down to 14 percent in 2016.

Hunting and fishing groups have been worried about these trends for a while, but the implications for conservation funding are not quite as dire as the NPR story reported. According to the FWS’s own data, hunting and fishing license revenues have held steady or increased over time, from approximately $1 billion (in inflation-adjusted 2017 dollars) in 1965 to $1.6 billion in 2017. More importantly, the federal excise taxes that support wildlife conservation are generating more money than ever. In 2017, those taxes sent $1.1 billion in revenues to the states for conservation, compared to a 1965 figure of only $184 million (again, in inflation-adjusted 2017 dollars). Whether this is enough revenue to support the expenses of modern wildlife conservation programming is an open question—many would argue that it is not. But the fact is that the dollars have held steady, or even risen, over time.

The robust funding picture for the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs stands in contrast to that for another key conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF Act, which passed in 1964, authorizes $900 million per year of conservation spending for parks and outdoor recreation using revenues from offshore oil and gas leases. The federal side of the LWCF supports land acquisition for national parks and other public lands, while the state side is a grant program for land acquisition and infrastructure in state and local parks.

While the LWCF state grant program and the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson wildlife and sport fish programs have similarities, their fates have been wildly different. Both programs send money to the states for conservation (and both require states to provide matching funds). Yet the wildlife programs have seen steady, even increasing, funding since 1965, while the LWCF has fluctuated up and down—and plummeted in value after the early 1980s. In some years, the states have received zero LWCF funding. Between 1965 and 2017, the two wildlife programs generated almost twice as much total funding for states as LWCF—$29.7 billion versus $15.7 billion (in 2017 dollars). The federal side of LWCF has had better funding than the state side but has also seen significant fluctuations year to year and an overall decline, in real terms, since the law was passed.

Graph created using data compiled from the US Department of the Interior and Congressional Research Service. For more information, please contact the author.

Why have the states fared so much better under the two wildlife-oriented programs than under the LWCF? The critical difference lies in how annual spending is determined in the programs. The Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Acts mandate that proceeds from the excise taxes go into accounts at the Department of the Interior, which apportions the money using formulas based on state land area and licenses. To be eligible for the money, states have to pass their own laws to ensure that their license revenues support fish and wildlife activities, and are not diverted to other purposes. Both laws specify that annual federal spending not be subject to appropriations.

By contrast, LWCF spending must be appropriated each year by Congress. In many years, LWCF spending—especially the state grants program—has been neglected or even forgotten in the budget negotiations. Although the program has bipartisan support in Congress, it has lacked strong House and Senate sponsors who adopt it as a signature issue. Moreover, advocacy is reasonably strong for the federal side of the program, namely from the major national conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, but is diffuse and somewhat muted for the state grants program.

After 50 years, the LWCF Act came up for reauthorization in 2015 but members could not reach agreement on permanent reauthorization. It was renewed for only three years, leaving Congress to deal with it again before it expires in September 2018. Bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives by Raul Grijalva (D-NM) and Pat Meehan (R-PA), and in the Senate by Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that would permanently reauthorize the LWCF Act and, for the first time, remove the requirement that spending come through the appropriations process. But similar bills were introduced in 2015 and failed to pass. Moreover, neither of the bills specifies how the total funding should be divided between the state and federal sides of the program.

The need for state funding from the LWCF may be greater than ever. With growing urbanization of the US population, opportunities for nature and outdoor recreation close to where people live is critical. Since the 1990s, new conservation funding programs have been introduced at both the state and federal levels, but they are not, for the most part, recreation-oriented. Moreover, they focus heavily on easements for private landowners, providing limited or no public access. The much discussed overcrowding at national parks in recent years (and the similar, but less discussed, overcrowding at many state parks and other public lands sites) is evidence of Americans’ increasing desire for connection to the outdoors, and this is exactly what the LWCF was designed to support.

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.