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Federal Fund That Helped Build The Boise Greenbelt In Limbo

Samantha Wright
Boise State Public Radio
This bridge in Ann Morrison Park links up to a stretch of Boise Greenbelt aquired with LWCF funds.

The little known Land and Water Conservation Fund turns 50 this year. The federal program has dispersed $17 billion over its lifetime. But now its future, and its mission of conserving open space in places like Idaho, is in limbo. Congress has let the fund lapse, and lawmakers are proposing some major changes.

From his office window, Tom Governale likes to watch eagles fly along the Boise Greenbelt in Ann Morrison Park.  The Superintendent of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department says the birds are not alone in taking advantage of the 25-mile-long path.

“It’s a stretch that’s heavily used. They run on it, they commute, a lot of people now go to work using the Greenbelt as the connectivity gets better,” says Governale.

It has come a long way, Governale says, since the 1960’s and 70’s, when Boise was trying to build the Greenbelt, one chunk of land at a time. He says the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, was instrumental in getting the path built.

“Well, there’s been quite a few stretches of the Greenbelt that have been funded, either acquired or developed with Land and Water Conservation Funds.”

This obscure federal fund takes a portion of the proceeds from offshore oil and gas drilling and puts them into conservation projects. The money is primarily spent through two sources, Stateside Assistance Grants and Federal Land and Water Acquisition. The money that helped build the Greenbelt came in through the state side.

“Just think, if we hadn’t had Land and Water to purchase that land, although there might be a nice restaurant or office building there, we might not have had that access or continuity. So it was very important to us, because the city didn’t have all the funds it needed.”

Governale says several of Boise’s neighborhood parks were acquired and developed with LWCF funds. LWCF has spent $8 million to purchase 300 acres of land just in Boise. The fund has also been a gift for smaller, rural communities in Idaho, building parks, playgrounds and ball fields.

Over its lifetime, LWCF has sent $234 million to Idaho. Other projects include the Hulls Gulch Preserve and preservation work in the Sawtooth Valley.

But the future of the fund is uncertain after Congress let it expire in September. Will Whelan is with the Idaho chapter of the Nature Conservancy

“That means that the oil and gas revenue that for 50 years has flowed into this fund that’s made available across the nation to protect special places, is no longer flowing into that fund,” says Whelan.

Environmental groups want Congress to re-authorize the program with the same conservation mission it has had since 1965. But some lawmakers want to make changes.

Utah Representative Rob Bishop says the LWCF is mismanaged and misused. He says too much of the money is going into the federal portion to buy land.

His proposal would divert some money to local governments in the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. And he’s earmarked some cash to pay for a maintenance backlog on public land. Some money would go toward people, not land conservation. That includes grants to train workers for oil and gas jobs and recreation opportunities in big cities for children and veterans.

“So we’re trying to get more money into where people are living and not just simply buying up land that happens to be randomly available,” says Bishop.

Bishop says the stateside program should be getting more of the money. He says the federal side would still get some cash.

“But it won’t be as much money, which right now is simply a slush fund that is administered with no accountability, no one knows what is really being bought, what is happening, and let’s face it, there are some special interest groups that are making money in that process,” according to Bishop.

But supporters of LWCF argue the government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management go through a thorough, step-by-step process to request and administer project funds. And Will Whelan says every fiscal year, the U.S. President’s budget lists every LWCF project proposal, including the dollar amount requested.

Whelan says the proposed changes could hurt the conservation mission of the LWCF.

“It would change the rules, if you will, for how those oil and gas revenues are spent, removing from the program really any effective way of conserving our open spaces, our beautiful vistas, our big rivers, through the core of the conservation program under LWCF,” says Whelan.

Whelan says the programs that Bishop wants to fund are good ideas. But he doesn’t think the money should come from the LWCF.

“It’s not necessary to pursue those other objectives by sort of fitting them in with a shoehorn inside of our cornerstone conservation program in the nation.”

Congress could reauthorize a slightly altered version of the original bill. It could take up Bishop’s proposal. Or do nothing.

Back in his office, Boise Parks Superintendent Tom Governale looks out over the Greenbelt. He says it’s proof of the good the LWCF has done here.

“It’s really helped the Boise dream come true, Land and Water; it’s helped make us one of the most livable cities in the country,” Governale says.

Governale says he’s got a backlog of proposed parks and projects just waiting for more LWCF money.

Congress could vote on an omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government Wednesday. And supporters of the Land and Water Conservation Fund hope a bill to restore the program is part of that package.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio

As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life!). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.

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