The Land and Water
Conservation Fund Matters
Story and Photo by Markelle Smith and Kristen Sykes
The value of open land accessible to all of us has never been clearer: as the pandemic has shown, available, safe outdoor spaces are critical to our overall health and happiness. And as the extreme flooding this summer in New England has illustrated, our changing climate is reaching a tipping point which, if we fail to adapt, could lead to significant damage to human communities and extinction of species on a large scale. It’s natural to feel helpless and hopeless about these giant challenges and to question whether there’s anything we might do to help ourselves and our planet. One nature-based solution that offers hope is protecting our lands and waters.
Fortunately, the Biden administration has proposed an initiative to promote natural climate solutions and create more places for people to get outside. This initiative, commonly referred to as 30x30, aims to conserve 30 percent of the country’s land and water by the year 2030. The follow-up campaign to achieve these goals is called America the Beautiful and is a “call to action to support locally led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America, wherever communities wish to safeguard the land and water they know and love.” Several federal funding programs focus on land conservation in support of the America the Beautiful/30x30 initiative, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
Inspired by the outdoor recreation movement in the 1950s and a growing awareness of the damage that development and resource extraction were having on the outdoors, President John F. Kennedy proposed the Land and Water Conservation Fund; its purpose: to safeguard natural areas, water resources, and our cultural heritage. In 1964, the LWCF was approved by Congress with large bipartisan support and signed into law by President Johnson. With the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was fully funded for the first time, ensuring that $900 million (in offshore oil and natural gas royalties) would be disbursed nationally each year to conserve our lands and waters.
Public and private lands conserved throughout the Northeast by LWCF—often leveraged by state and local funds—are critically important in our efforts to combat climate change. For almost 60 years, LWCF has protected outdoor treasures in every state in the country, many within the five-state Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge that encompasses the Connecticut River watershed. Each year the Conte Refuge receives an annual appropriation from LWCF that allows them to purchase land from willing sellers throughout the watershed. Partner organizations such as land trusts work with the Refuge to ensure that these lands are conserved.
As representatives of the Friends of Conte, a coalition of more than 70 public and private organizations working together to strengthen the health of the Connecticut River watershed, we know firsthand how critical LWCF funding has been to the watershed. Iconic places saved across the Connecticut River Basin in the last decade demonstrate the importance of this funding:
- The New England National Scenic Trail, which stretches 215 miles from Connecticut through Massachusetts, over the Mount Holyoke Range, to the New Hampshire border, will now have more opportunity to draw from LWCF to support the National Park Service and Appalachian Mountain Club’s efforts to make this trail accessible to people from urban and rural parts of our Valley.
- In Longmeadow, Massachusetts, the Fannie Stebbins Unit of the Conte Refuge was created with the transfer of 100 acres from Fannie Stebbins Wildlife Refuge, Inc. to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The remainder of the Stebbins land (230 acres) was transferred to The Nature Conservancy, which completed an extensive restoration project, including planting more than 8,000 trees and shrubs with funds provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Appalachian Mountain Club, a leader of the LWCF Coalition, built a Connecticut River Paddlers campsite here in 2019. Now that this land has been restored, it is the largest unfragmented area of natural floodplain vegetation in the Connecticut River watershed.
- In Hadley, Massachusetts, the award-winning universal access nature trail off Moody Bridge Road in the 300-acre Fort River Division of the Conte Refuge welcomes over 30,000 visitors a year to the stunning vistas of protected grasslands and farmland that extend to the Mount Holyoke Range. The Kestrel Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land have led the way for two decades to conserve this area.
The importance of natural areas that people can access has increased across the globe following the pandemic and extreme weather. The Connecticut River watershed was not spared, but has been fortunate in having the congressional leadership essential to protect the vital lands and waters that sustain us. The current level of funding, though, is a floor, not a ceiling. There are many more projects in the queue throughout the Connecticut River Watershed that could benefit from LWCF funding. The Friends of Conte have identified 51 land conservation project opportunities across the watershed states covering nearly 10,000 acres and valued at $27 million.