The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired land to create the Devils River State Natural Area in Del Rio with financial assistance from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Credit: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson / Texas Tribune

With Congress set to adjourn next week, parks advocates are pushing for lawmakers to revive a half-century-old program that has pumped more than a half-billion dollars into Texas’ parks and natural areas.

Congress let the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) expire on Sept. 30. The fund – established in 1964 to support the maintenance of national parks, wildlife refuges and trails, as well as state and local parks – has supplied Texas with more than $577 million.

Popular destinations like San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Big Thicket National Preserve, Devils River State Natural Area, Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sabine National Forest have all benefited.

The LWCF Coalition, a group pushing for reauthorization, said more than $165 million in potential funding has been lost to parks nationally since the fund expired.

Failure to reauthorize the fund will negatively impact Texas’ $52.6 billion outdoor recreation industry, which supports 411,000 jobs and generates $3.5 billion annually in local and state tax revenue, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Texas parks are already underfunded, with an estimated $781 million in deferred maintenance. They need between $50 million and $80 million in repairs every two years, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The state’s national parks also have more than $167 million in overdue repairs.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department chief Carter Smith said the fund is “an incredibly powerful tool” for conservation work in Texas. He said the department doles out the money to cities and counties to help them acquire and develop public recreation areas.

“The LWCF reauthorization is of immense importance to communities, people and parks across all of Texas,” Smith said. “Funds from the LWCF have been instrumental in aiding the department and our community partners in acquiring and developing much-needed park land to meet the quality of life, recreational and economic needs of a growing Texas. The absence of this highly leveraged, deeply popular funding stream would be a substantial loss for Texas.”

This is the second time in the past three years Congress has let the fund expire. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appear to be coalescing around a short-term extension for the conservation fund rather than a permanent fix.

The fund has a $900 million cap. It is fed by fees generated from offshore oil and gas development. Congress typically only appropriates a portion of that money.

House lawmakers disagree on language in the Senate version of the LWCF bill, which calls for full funding of the program.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Bloomberg Environment last week that a conservation fund extension can move quickly if both parties can get behind either a permanent extension or a one-year reauthorization.

“Anything can happen around here if it’s done by agreement,” said Cornyn, the Senate majority whip.

A national poll conducted in November for the National Wildlife Federation found that 74 percent of respondents support reauthorization and funding.

“The poll highlights that Americans are united in their support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Collin O’Mara, the federation’s president and CEO. “Failing to act in the face of this overwhelming support would be a massive missed opportunity for our wildlife and outdoor heritage.”

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Carlos Anchondo

Carlos Anchondo is the water fellow at The Texas Tribune. He is a second-year master’s candidate in the journalism program at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also serves as a teaching assistant....