Follow the Money

A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands

Joseph E Taylor III, Erik Steiner, Krista Fryauff, Celena Allen, Alex Sherman, Zephyr Frank

The LWCF grant program is a unique source of federal contributions to county budgets

The LWCF was the urban counterpart to the 1964 Wilderness Act

Funding has come from offshore petroleum royalties

No LWCF grants were issued after Federal Fiscal Year 2012

Land and Water Conservation Fund Grants

Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grants are awarded to municipal and county governments for the acquisition and restoration of ecological and recreational lands.

Unlike the other natural resource revenue sharing programs mapped by Follow the Money, the Land and Water Conservation Fund operates as a set of granting programs, and distribution has had many moving parts with significant political input. All LWCF grants require states, counties, and municipalities to apply for funding by enumerating specific projects and budgets. Two of the programs—the Forest Legacy Program administered by the Forest Service, and the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service—send funds primarily to states to acquire lands or easements for conservation purposes. The specific program mapped here is the State and County Assistance Program administered by the Naitonal Park Service. The approval process for all these programs has involved significant consultation with congressional legislators from the state seeking funding, and states have had to provide matching funds to qualify for consideration.

Another distinguishing feature of the LWCF program has been its recreational roots. The legislative history of the LWCF stretched over three administrations. Discussions began in 1956 when President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned an investigation of future recreational needs, and Congress created the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1958. The ORRRC report, submitted to President John Kennedy in 1962, called for the creation of a permanent fund to support the acquisition and rehabilitation of lands for recreational purposes by federal, state, and local governments. Final passage of legislation came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson signed the somewhat confusingly titled “Land and Water Conservation Fund of 1965” (PL 88-578) on the same day as the Wilderness Act (PL 88-577). The LWCF was in effect an urban analog to the effort to protect rural wildlands.

The LWCF created a permanent trust fund supplied by fees and gas taxes, but it mandated that most grants go to land acquisition and recreational projects in the eastern United States. Acquisition and restoration in the public lands states were always lower priorities, but in all other respects western projects were similar. Grant projects have focused on urban and suburban landscapes and on ecological rehabilitation and recreational development. The LWCF’s funding mechanism was main political concern in its early years. Congress worried that reliance on user fees and gas taxes would create inflationary pressures on these mechanisms, so in 1968, Congress switched to a funding model that would appropriate a portion of the annual royalties from offshore oil drilling. This was a popular substitute that has remained the sole revenue source to this day. Congressional appropriations, however, have not always matched program demands.

The administration of the LWCF has been beset by administrative and funding instabilities. The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation—another product of the 1962 ORRRC report—oversaw the grant program until 1978, when authority shifted first to the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service within the Bureau of Land Management and then in 1981 to the National Park Service. The latter agency has stewarded the program ever since, but the granting process still depended on congressional funding. As with the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, the LCWF thrived or starved based on the whims of fiscal politics, and lust like the broader history of local, state, and national political economy, congressional willingness to sustain these environmental grants waxed and waned from the early 1980s to the 2010s. Then official authorization of the program expired in September 2015, only to be temporarily extended to 2020, when The Great American Outdoors Act (PL 116-152) finally committed permanent funding for the LWCF from offshore drilling royalties.



“Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016.” Public Law 114-113. (accessed 24 March 2016).

Dant, Sara. “LBJ, Wilderness, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.” Environmental History 19 (October 2014): 736-43.

“Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965.” Public Law 88-578. (accessed 7 March 2015).

Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, Land and Water Conservation Fund: 50 Years of Conserving America the Beautiful (2014), (accessed 24 February 2021).

Lehman, Orin. “On the 25th Anniversary of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.” Conservationist 45 (November-December 1990): 44-47.

National Park Service, Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program, Federal Financial Assistance Manual Vol. 69 (2008), (accessed 7 March 2015)

Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Outdoor Recreation for America. Washington. Government Printing Office, 1962.

“The Great American Outdoors Act.” Public Law 116-152. (accessed 25 February 2021).

Vincent, Carol Hardy. Land and Water Conservation Fund: Overview, Funding History, and Issues. Corn, M. Lynne. CRS Report for Congress RL 33531. Washington. Congressional Research Service, 2014.