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National park funding from oil and gas revenues set to expire today

Some members of Congress allowed it to lapse because they want to change 50-year-old rules on how the money should be spent.

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Visitors enjoy Yosemite National Park in California.

Gary Kazanjian/AP/File

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Wednesday new funding runs dry for a program that has supported hundreds of parks around the country for 50 years.

Why? Because Rep. Rob Bishop (R) of Utah, who chairs the US House Committee on Natural Resources, wants to rewrite the law stipulating how the money can be spent.

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The Land and Water Conservation Fund, launched in 1965, is funded by royalties from energy companies allowed to drill for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf, a section of seafloor owned by the federal government. Both parties have supported the program, which funds water and natural resources conservation, national parks like Gettysburg and Yosemite, state parks and historic sites, and popular recreational resources like the Appalachian Trail.

"Since its inception, the fund has protected land in all 50 states, 98 percent of counties, and supported more than 41,000 state and local park projects," wrote Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, in an op-ed in the Boston Globe.

"It does not cost a dime to American taxpayers and does not contribute to the federal deficit," she wrote. "Dismantling this critical program would disadvantage communities around the country in real and significant ways."

It was last reauthorized in 1995 with no fanfare, according to Adam Sarvana, spokesman for the Democrats on the US House natural resources committee. But this time is different, and after tonight, no more royalty money will be appropriated for the program.

In the Senate, the parties have reached an agreement on funding the program, but the House has scheduled neither discussion nor a vote on the program, says Mr. Sarvana.  

Mr. Bishop needs more time to "modernize" the law, he said in a statement. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, his spokeswoman Julia Slingsby said Bishop intends to "introduce reforms that will empower the states," but Bishop has offered few details of what that means and has submitted no new legislation, despite today’s deadline.

"We don’t want to rush the process when we want to actually have good policy," said Ms. Slingsby. She expects that a bill will be introduced in coming months.

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Bishop’s biggest gripe seems to be that too much of the fund is spent on land acquisition by the federal government, which buys the land to protect it from development.

His supporters agree.

"Congress should not be empowering land management agencies to further expand the federal estate in western communities, not to mention the removal of more natural resources from productive use in the rural west," wrote the presidents of the Public Lands Council and Cattlemen’s Beef Association to the committee yesterday.  

According to the law that created the program, Congress can appropriate $900 million a year to the fund from the $2.5 million a day it collects from oil and gas royalties. But in practice, the legislature gives the program only about $100 million to $200 million, says Sarvana, with the rest, some $20 billion accrued over the years, still owed to the park conservation program.

Now that no new funding will be coming in, Congress should in theory be able to fund the program with the money it still owes to it, but Sarvana thinks that’s unlikely to happen.

"With the program expiring, the Outer Continental Shelf royalty will just go into the general treasury fund and Congress will – we fear – start to ignore [the fund] as a priority worse than ever," Sarvana wrote in an e-mail.