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League's Legacy: America's Most Successful Conservation Law

Lisa Ballard
Denali National Park - Pixabay

The idea was simple: Companies that profit by depleting natural resources owned by the public would return a portion of the funds to the United States to invest in conserving lands and water. Most of the money would come from royalties paid by oil and gas companies, particularly those drilling offshore.

This idea came to fruition in 1965 when Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to be managed by the Department of the Interior. In the decades since then, the fund has provided $18.9 billion in direct investments and matching grants to federal, state and local governments to purchase land or acquire easements to public land and water for the public’s benefit, at no cost to taxpayers.

As a result, LWCF has helped to fund thousands of outdoor recreation projects in almost every county in the U.S., including urban parks, rec centers, ballfields and boat ramps. It has helped the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquire lands of critical importance to both wildlife and public enjoyment.

But more should have been invested over that half century. When LWCF became law, it was authorized to be funded at $900 million per year. That meant that Congress still needed to actually provide those funds – appropriate the money, every year. And Congress rarely delivered more than a third to half of that $900 million. So the rest of the money was spent on unrelated budget items.

No longer!

Last summer, when the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) was signed into law, it included permanent funding for LWCF at its originally intended level of $900 million per year. That means LWCF is guaranteed this funding without Congress having to appropriate it annually.

Conservation groups including the Izaak Walton League of America, hunters, anglers and others who value our natural resources and outdoor recreation hailed the GAOA as one of the most significant conservation laws since the LWCF was established in 1965.

The League and LWCF

It was a soft-spoken yet influential Ike, Joe Penfold, who pushed the importance of outdoor recreation and the concept of LWCF. He served as conservation director for the League from 1957 to 1973. He championed the idea through three presidential administrations – Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson – until the concept became law under President Johnson. In spite of its relative obscurity, LWCF ranks as one of the nation’s most essential conservation laws.

Conservation groups including the Izaak Walton League of America, hunters, anglers and others who value our natural resources and outdoor recreation hailed the GAOA as one of the most significant conservation laws since the LWCF was established in 1965.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the conservation community was much less fragmented than it is today, and much smaller. There were only a handful of national organizations whose leadership not only knew each other professionally but were often personal friends. Joe Penfold was a respected member of that group, and through his expertise and work, he earned the ear of influential lawmakers in Congress.

According to Mike Penfold, Joe’s son, his father was among the first to understand the need to collect and use data to advocate for the economic and social benefits of outdoor recreation. Benefits that even non-conservation-minded politicians would support.

With Penfold’s insights, the Izaak Walton League’s vision not only covered large tracts of public land like national parks and forests, but also smaller city parks and ballfields. To that end, he co-drafted a bill and successfully advocated for creation of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, to which President Kennedy appointed him. Others serving on that commission included Senators Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson, Representative Wayne Aspinall, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and conservationist Laurance Rockefeller. Influential company indeed.

The commission revealed for the first time the billions of dollars and countless jobs generated by outdoor recreation on public lands. The reports issued by the commission paved the way for passage of the Wilderness Act, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Outdoor Recreation Act and LWCF. Owing to his foresight and trusted opinions, Joe Penfold earned the title “the father of the LWCF.”

“My father understood the importance of investment in communities as well as remote natural areas,” says Mike Penfold. “He believed the diversity of outdoor experiences was important and relevant to each other. Outdoor recreation needs to start in town. To protect wild areas, you need people to have outdoor experiences, though not necessarily in a place that can’t handle a lot of public use.”

Public Use of Public Lands

Thanks to work by the League and Joe Penfold, LWCF has played a critical role in increasing access to public lands for a half century. The program has helped the nation’s outdoor recreation economy to grow to $788 billion per year today and has also protected green spaces and natural areas in virtually every community in America.

LWCF PROJECTS NEAR YOU

To learn about local LWCF-funded projects, visit the interactive map.

The 40,000 projects that LWCF has funded over the last 56 years have included such diverse needs as the restoration of the natural waterflow in the Everglades, the pit toilets on top of Mount Evans in Colorado (the highest paved road in North America) and the expansion of the California National Monument from 1,711 acres at Point Arena to 7,924 acres. LWCF grants were used to stabilize the shoreline at Illinois Beach in Chicago and construct walking paths in Riverfront Park in Billings, Montana.

The fund has also been used extensively to purchase private inholdings surrounded by public lands (private lands or homes located inside national parks or forests) and consolidate the patchwork of public and private lands in the West, which improve efficiencies in managing our shared public spaces.

Once an LWCF grant is used to acquire or enhance land for public use, the property must retain those uses.

At Indiana Dunes State Park, the Porter County Chapter of the IWLA is relying on this provision of LWCF to prevent the state of Indiana from building a banquet facility on the beach adjacent to a newly renovated, circa 1930 pavilion. The state wishes to convert the plaza on one side of the pavilion into a three-story restaurant with a sports bar on the first floor, dining on the second floor and a roof bar with sliding glass walls.

“How crazy to put up glass walls in a flyway for birds,” says Jim Sweeney, an IWLA state director.

Investing in the Basics – Another Win

While the Great American Outdoors Act permanently funds LWCF, it also provides separate funding of $9.5 billion over the next five years to catch up on the enormous maintenance backlog in our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and waterways.

Unfortunately, for many years now, Washington has been shortchanging the federal programs that maintain and improve our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

The Great American Outdoors Act is a down payment. We want to make sure those dollars are spent well and equitably, both geographically and across underserved communities who don’t have access to nature.Amy Lindholm, LWCF Coaltion

Given that the National Park Service backlog alone is now over $12 billion, GAOA is not a cureall. But it will provide noticeable upgrades to facilities, trails and roads and create the jobs needed to achieve these improvements.

“This is your land!” says Jared Mott, IWLA Conservation Director. “The degradation of our public land over time, due to lots of budget cuts, has been used by some anti-conservationists as an excuse to sell off public lands. It took a long time to get to this state of disrepair in our national parks and public lands, and it’s going to take a long time to fix it. But the Great American Outdoors Act and the permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Act is a good start.”

“The Great American Outdoors Act is a down payment,” says Amy Lindholm, who manages the LWCF Coalition, a network of groups that has been advocating for authorization and funding. “We want to make sure those dollars are spent well and equitably, both geographically and across underserved communities who don’t have access to nature.”

Tools to Combat Climate Crisis

Now and stretching into the future, one of the more profound values of LWCF is helping to deal with climate change. Through strategic land acquisitions, the program can help with flood mitigation in places like the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which the League helped to establish in one of its earliest and most enduring conservation victories. It can also be used to create buffers where sea levels are rising, like wetlands along the Chesapeake Bay and in southern Louisiana.

Lindholm cites funding from LWCF that supports forest legacy programs in the highlands of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut as another example. By keeping those timberlands in current use (in keeping with LWCF’s covenants) rather than clearing them for housing developments, the forests hold on to carbon and remain available for hiking, hunting and for other outdoor recreation.

In spite of its relative obscurity, LWCF ranks as one of the nation's most essential conservation laws.

What’s more, wild places give wildlife the chance to modify their behavior and move around in reaction to climate-related changes to their habitat and natural range. “You can’t teach animals how to adapt to climate change, but you can remove other stressors so they can figure out how to adapt,” explains Mott. “Likewise, LWCF helps us protect wildlife migration corridors.”

In fire-prone regions where wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe, LWCF helps fund the creation of buffers between likely burn areas and residential developments – an area called the wildland-urban interface – to protect property and lives.

“Land is our greatest resource to fight climate change,” says Lindholm.

Our nation’s 640 million acres of public lands are unequalled anywhere in the world. Over the past year, due to the pandemic, these public places have seen high demand and unprecedented levels of use. Record numbers of people have flocked to parks, forests, mountains, lakeshores and coastal areas as something healthy and safe to do.

We, the American people, also own that land and we need to take care of it.

A Legacy for the League

Mike Penfold recalls his father’s observation that “there’s no limit to what can be done – if someone else gets the credit.”

Joe Penfold was far more concerned about achieving the best outcomes for conservation and outdoor recreation than taking credit. Few people know about the extraordinary scope of benefits that LWCF has delivered to Americans for decades. Even fewer people have ever heard of Joe Penfold.

Yet, thanks to Joe’s visionary leadership, LWCF will continue to conserve our land and water and help people enjoy the outdoors for many generations to come.


This article was excerpted from “Outdoor America” 2021 issue #2. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Lisa Ballard is an Ike from Red Lodge, Montana, and a long-time contributor to Outdoor America. An award-winning writer and photographer, she is dedicated to getting people of all ages outdoors. www.LisaBallardOutdoors.com.

Top photo: Denali National Park, from Pixabay.