Environment Nevada State Director Levi Kamolnick and I have spent the last few months working on a report on the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and its importance for land preservation and outdoor recreation in Nevada. Funded by our friends at the Western Conservation Foundation, the report was released last week as a joint publication by Environment Nevada and Frontier Group. Here’s the intro (you can download the full report here – and check out my blog on the LWCF on the Frontier Group site):
When John Muir first visited Nevada in the late 1800s, he was underwhelmed. “To the farmer who comes to this thirsty land from beneath rainy skies,” he wrote, the place seems little more than “one vast desert, all sage and sand.” He quickly discovered that Nevada was much, much more.
In a series of editorials in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin reporting on his travels throughout the state, Muir described with affection a land of intense natural beauty and abundance, sprawling forests rich in plant and animal life, soaring mountain ranges and ancient glacial valleys sweeping out into wide-open low desert plains. “[W]heresoever we may venture to go in all this good world,” he wrote, “nature is ever found richer and more beautiful than she seems, and nowhere may you meet with more varied and delightful surprises than in the byways and recesses of this sublime wilderness.”
The landscapes of the Silver State are some of the finest in the country. From the great natural sculptures of red Navajo sandstone in the southern desert to alpine forests, pristine lakes and snowy mountain peaks in the north, the sheer diversity of Nevada’s natural environment is staggering. Every year, millions of people visit these places to hike, ski, rock climb, ride horses, watch birds, kayak, fish, sail, and marvel at the region’s spectacular vistas.
Nevada’s natural beauty is so overwhelming that it’s easy to take it for granted. But across the state, many of the landscapes and adventure opportunities Nevadans enjoy would likely not be accessible were it not for a little-known federal program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
Since its inception in 1965, the LWCF has used revenue from a range of sources – primarily royalties paid by energy firms engaged in offshore oil and gas drilling – to help protect millions of acres of natural land and ensure public access to outdoor recreation opportunities in every state in the country.
In Nevada, the LWCF has delivered more than $100 million to support hundreds of projects to expand access to the outdoors. Historic sites such as Fort Churchill State Historic Park, beautiful outdoor areas such as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Valley of Fire State Park, and numerous local and regional parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities have benefited from LWCF grants. The program could have done much more to safeguard and provide access to Nevada’s natural wonders, however, if it had been fully funded.
Under the federal law that created the LWCF, the program is entitled to accrue $900 million per year. These revenues, however, have to be appropriated by Congress before they can be used, and only twice in the LWCF’s history has the full $900 million been appropriated and made available for the purposes for which the fund was intended. Instead, every year Congress diverts millions of dollars owed to the LWCF to fill budget holes elsewhere, leaving critical natural lands unprotected and contributing to a nationwide park maintenance and conservation funding shortfall now totaling more than $10 billion.
In Nevada, officials estimate that the state parks system alone currently needs a total of $8.7 million to pay for a backlog of priority projects. These include renovations and maintenance at popular outdoor destinations such as Echo Canyon, Spring Mountain Ranch, Fort Churchill, and Dayton State Park, and the upkeep of historic sites such as Buckland Station and the Red House – a 19th century landmark well known to the hikers and mountain bikers who enjoy the sprawling network of trails in the mountains above Lake Tahoe. In addition, the state’s political subdivisions (counties, cities, general improvement districts and others) apply for around $1.6 million in LWCF grants every year, bringing the total shortfall closer to $10.3 million. The maintenance backlog for Nevada’s national park units currently stands at more than $160 million.
In 2019, Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation permanently reauthorizing the LWCF. The next step is to ensure the passage of legislation guaranteeing permanent and dedicated funding for the program, making the full $900 million available each year without it having to be appropriated. As we show in this report, in Nevada, and across the country as a whole, funding provided by the LWCF enables millions of people every year to take advantage of the recreational opportunities its natural landscapes provide. With full funding, the program would be able to accomplish even more, protecting and conserving Nevada’s public lands for generations to come.