When most of us here in western North Carolina go for a hike on the Appalachian Trail, hunt or fish in the National Forest, enjoy a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or visit the Carl Sandburg Home, we do not normally stop to think about how such opportunities were created or paid for.
Though much of our National Forest land here in North Carolina was acquired in the early twentieth century in order to restore forest land and watersheds, in the decade of suburban expansion following World War II it became quickly apparent to many that land was a finite resource and further action was necessary. It was not immediate, but on Valentine’s Day in 1963 President John F. Kennedy proposed legislation that would give birth to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which passed in September of that year.
There was strong bi-partisan support for the bill and its passage established a fund that received about $100 million a year during the sixties, an amount that was quickly realized as inadequate. Growing demands on the fund led to the need for new sources of money for it, which resulted in funding eventually coming from the Federal Government’s offshore oil and mineral leases.
Legislation was passed in 1977 that increased the fund to $900 million per year, but it was 1998 before LWCF received full funding. Congress simply used the allocated money for other purposes. The fund spiked again in 2001 to $1.0 billion, but since then it has been reduced dramatically every year, with LWCF receiving only $86 million in 2007.
This extremely important source of funding has protected a total of 4.7 million American acres since its inception, including tens of thousands of acres to create and protect the Appalachian Trail, stretching from Maine to Georgia. Here in North Carolina, it has provided more than $63 million in funding for the protection of more than 37,000 acres and over 800 state and local park projects.
Most recently, LWCF provided $4 million in 2001 for a key 3,000-acre addition to Lake James State Park as well as over half a million dollars for the creation of Blair Point Park in Morehead City. Blair Point Park was funded through the state matching grants program, often referred to as the “stateside” program, which provides federal funds to states and localities to assist in the planning and acquisition of open space such as greenways and local recreation facilities.
In 2008, the president’s budget included a meager $59 million for LWCF nationwide and proposed to eliminate the stateside grant program altogether. (For perspective, the state of North Carolina’s recent purchase of the 996-acre Chimney Rock Park in Rutherford County came with a price of $24 million).
Perhaps most startling was that the administration’s budget recommendations include no funding for projects in our region whatsoever. It also called for a massive sell off of 300,000 acres of National Forest lands and 500,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands. This included 5,685 acres of National Forest land in North Carolina with the vast majority of it lying within the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.
Given that we live in one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, and, according to Forest Service statistics, have lost over six million acres to development between 1982 and 1997, this cannot be ignored.
Since 2008, LWCF has made a comeback as a result of a new Congress and Administration. In fact, the Congress increased the FY10 budget for LWCF by 78 percent to $306 million, a far cry from the previous Administration’s efforts to defund the program. As a result of this strengthened commitment the Forest Service in our region has identified key tracts for land conservation from willing sellers, mainly along the Appalachian Trail, with needs of over $15 million dollars in order to acquire them. This includes a key parcel in western North Carolina on Wesser Bald, as well as the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork tract in Tennessee, which runs along the western North
Carolina border near the Roan Highlands. The Rocky Fork tract is one of the largest unprotected tracts left in the southern Appalachian mountains, and in addition to being adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, it is adjacent to more than 22,000 acres of wilderness and potential wilderness lands protected by the U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina and Tennessee. Although it was being marketed for second and primary home development, the owner had shown interest in protecting the property and in the winter of 2008, the Conservation Fund was able to purchase Rocky Fork with the intention of selling it back to the Forest Service. To date, because of Rocky Fork’s national significance and strong local congressional leadership, the project has received $9 million over the past two budget cycles.
With a newly enhanced Land and Water Conservation Fund, a North Carolina project called the Catawba Falls Access Land will receive monies in FY10 for the first time in nearly a decade. For FY11 the Forest Service in North Carolina has identified and will be proposing a modest $4 million worth of land acquistion projects in North Carolina alone. The future of LWCF does look bright, with the President’s recent commitment to fully fund the LWCF by 2014 and two bills in the House and Senate that have been introduced to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.