By Will Coggin

It's hardly news that Congress regularly gets approval ratings at a level reserved for the least trusted professions, like used-car salesmen. But a recent tiff over a small reform to a popular program shows just how little can get done in Washington gridlock.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a 50-year-old federal program, recently died because Congress failed to reauthorize it. The program, which was created in 1965 and receives revenue from offshore oil and gas leases, provides funding for the federal government to buy land and for states to spend on recreation projects. In Pennsylvania, for instance, it has contributed $2 million to establish the Great Allegheny Passage in Allegheny County.

Understandably, it's a popular program. So why did it die?

Like many programs in Washington, the fund drifted from its intent. Originally, 60 percent of the money was earmarked for states. But in the 1970s, the fund was changed to allow a greater share of revenues to be spent on land acquisition. At the time, there was a backlog of lands that the federal government wanted to buy, so the change made some sense.

Fast-forward to today, when the problem has changed. Now the federal government can't take proper care of the land it owns. The National Park Service is responsible for more than $11 billion in estimated deferred maintenance, while the Forest Service faces more than $300 million in backlogged trail repairs.

The state recreation programs? They are being shortchanged so that the federal government can continue to buy lands it can't properly manage.

The logical response to this situation would be to change how the money is spent. And since the LWCF was up for reauthorization, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah) proposed to increase the amount of money going to states and reduce the amount of money going to federal land acquisition.

This proposal would seem to be a win-win for conservation. But environmental activists have launched an expensive ad campaign against reform of the fund. They want the feds to keep buying up land, even if they can't care for the land under their control.

Why? Environmental groups want to ban oil and gas development. If land is controlled by states or private individuals, it's harder to block this use. If the land is under federal control, it's easier to determine how it is or isn't used. So for environmentalists, the more the federal government expands its real estate holdings - which right now stands at a whopping 30 percent of the country - the better.

The same reasoning is behind opposition to transferring management of some federal lands to the states, even though states would be better stewards of the land.

According to a recent report by the Property and Environment Research Center, the federal government loses taxpayer money on its (mis-)management of certain public lands, while states would be able to manage them in a way that provides revenue for taxpayers. But since states might allow limited use of the land for the production of wood, energy, or other resources that benefit their citizens, the proposals are opposed by environmentalists.

Mainstream sportsmen groups are pushing for a slight change to the LWCF known as the Making Public Lands Public initiative. Legislation pending in Congress would earmark 1.5 percent of the fund, or $10 million, for enhancing public access for hunters and anglers on federal lands - a more productive use of tax dollars than increasing federal real estate holdings.

The bottom line is, while reformers want to ensure that more money is going to states, special interests want more money spent on buying land. One idea promotes responsible conservation; the other doesn't.

Will Coggin is the research director at the Environmental Policy Alliance.