Oil for Trees: Does the Land and Water Conservation Fund Offer a Devil's Bargain?

Fleming Ranch in the San Bernardino National Forest | Photo: Maria Grants/Courtesy Trust for Public Lands
Fleming Ranch in the San Bernardino National Forest | Photo: Maria Grants/Courtesy Trust for Public Lands

Here's what $1.5 million will get you: 1288 acres of the Fleming Ranch, high up in the San Bernardino Mountains, a site fully surrounded by the eponymous national forest. The working landscape abuts the San Jacinto Wilderness and the Pacific Crest Trail and its purchase thus neatly closes off a major inholding, facilitating integrated management across the rugged range.

This is a fabulous use of funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Yet these federal dollars may also represent a bit of greenwashing. The term usually refers to the deceptive practices that corporations employ to make their products and actions appear to be more environmentally sensitive than they are in reality. Rebrand British Petroleum into BP, spend an estimated $200 million on a new logo (that yellow-and-green sunburst) and push out a high-pressure, global-marketing campaign, and you're bearing witness to a classic case of green sheen.

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Bearing a similar verdant coat is a program that seems on the outside like a no-cost environmental good: the Land and Water Conservation Fund itself. Its funding after all is entirely dependent on the very messy and highly profitable drilling that BP, ExxonMobile, Shell, Chevron, and countless other oil-and-gas companies pursue in the Outer Continental Shelf.

The more energy we demand, the more they produce. The more oil and gas they suck out of the Gulf of Mexico, extract along the east and west coasts, or siphon out of Alaskan waters the more dollars that go into LWCF. The larger these coffers become, the more funding LWCF can dole out to local, state, and federal agencies to purchase and protect other vulnerable lands -- such as the Fleming Ranch.

Talk about a Devil's Bargain.

By their very nature, such deals are unbalanced at best. It's helpful to remember, then, that there is nothing clean about energy production. To drill or frack is to disrupt. To pump or dig is to pull apart. To dam up is to submerge. To clearcut is to splinter.

Even to capture the sun's rays or harness the wind is to bulldoze ecosystems or flatten habitats.

Once developed, refined, or converted -- dirty processes each -- these fuels must be distributed. Doing so through pipelines, along transportation routes, or over the electric grid is to generate additional harms, environmental and human. Whenever we turn a key; power up a laptop, I-Pad, or smart phone; or fire up a generator, we despoil.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964 | Photo: National Park Service
President Lyndon Johnson signing the the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964 | Photo: National Park Service

Hold that thought. For while there remains something awkward about the legislative fix to lessen the deleterious environmental impact of dirty coal and oil, it is also true that the LWCF, which President Lyndon Johnson signed in to law on September 3, 1964 (P.L. 88-578), is an ingenious initiative. It grew out of the second great wave of conservation legislation in the 20th century, a post-Rachel Carson commitment that resolved some of the pressing environmental issues unknown to earlier generations.

The first major period of federal conservationism, with its origins in the Progressive Era, had spawned a series of catalytic laws, including the Antiquities Act (1906) and the Weeks Act (1911); in combination with other congressional actions, they had led to the creation and expansion of dedicated systems of national forests (1905) and parks (1916).

But by the 1960s, the public lands, and the major agencies that managed our grasslands, forests, parks, and refuges -- among them the Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and Park Service -- clearly needed increased budgets. This situation grew directly out of the new mandates that Congress had required they fulfill after passing sweeping legislation to protect clean air and water; scenic trails and rivers; endangered species and wilderness; and historical and cultural resources. By tapping into receipts that offshore energy leases generated, the proponents of the LWCF hoped to establish a steady stream of revenue to keep America beautiful.

It has not quite met that ambitious goal, in large part because congressional appropriators have routinely diverted its funding to other projects or to offset deficits. According to the Congressional Research Service:

Just as the total amounts appropriated and expended have varied widely over time, so have these funds been unequally distributed; federal-land acquisition has absorbed the lion's share (62%), with state (26%) and other programs (12%) trailing far behind.

Data from the Congressional Research Service makes it clear, too, that the federal agencies have received unequal distributions. In 2002, The Forest Service snagged $149.7 million while BLM got roughly a third of that total; nine years later, Fish and Wildlife and the Park Service received equal shares ($54.9 million), while the Forest Service made do with $32.9 and BLM with $22 million.

Whatever the individual federal (and state) agency's shares over the past 48 years, collectively they have purchased an estimated seven million acres of wetlands, forests, waterways, and open space, a not-insignificant sum.

Surely, the specific acquisitions this year are as significant as those in the past. California received a healthy portion of the $46 million that the U. S. Forest Service received; of the 15 states receiving funds, the Golden State netted $8.3 million of the total. It's being wisely spent, too.

In addition to Fleming Ranch, the only site in Southern California, the agency is now able to protect an array of riparian habitat in northern portions of the state. On the shores of Lake Shasta, a "donut hole of private land" was snapped up for $800,000; for $1.5 million, the Forest Service will gain management of nearly 30 miles of Deer Creek as it winds through Lassen National Forest, "a dam-free stream that is one of the top salmon producers in the Sacramento Basin."

A similar amount is being spent to buy up a checkerboard pattern of private land on the Eldorado National Forest, and another two million will be applied to protect the headwaters of the American and Yorba rivers; even more watershed will come under federal control in the Six Rivers National Forest.

When you combine these dollars with an additional one million to buy land adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail as it runs across the high country of Washington, Oregon and California, a boon to hikers and to migratory moose, coyotes, wolves, bears, and elk, it appears that this year's LWCF appropriations have been deftly targeted.

Yet the process still seems scattershot (why these acres and not others? Why not more of them?). It remains consistently underfunded (only twice in its nearly five decades has the fund hit its $900 million cap).

Looming over these dilemmas is the larger tension that derives from the fossil-fuel source of LWCF's funding.

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010 | Photo:  United States Coast Guard
Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010 | Photo: United States Coast Guard

An unsettling case in point is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In theory, a portion of BP's lease payments for rights to drill within what the company designated as the Macondo Prospect, (officially known as Block 252 in the Mississippi Canyon off the coast of Louisiana), went into LWCF.

However much that amounted to, it could not begin to compensate for the damage that resulted when in April 2010 the well blew up, killing 11 workers, injuring 17, an explosive gush that pushed five million barrels of oil into the warm waters; more continued to pour out, even after it was capped that July; and now there are reports of a second wave of oil surfacing in the devastated region.

BP's lease payments to the federal treasury, then, amounted to a fraction of mitigation: the Gulf of Mexico remains an oil-slick sacrifice zone, built of American consumers' insatiable demand and corporate profiteering. As partial compensation, we buy up more pristine acres for park, forests, or refuges which are located at a considerable remove from the places we are so willing to mar.

For all its virtues, Fleming Ranch can't begin to make this right.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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