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The Land And Water Conservation Act of 1965, which was subsequently amended, was U.S. legislation designed to regulate access to and acquisition of land for the use of American citizens and the betterment of their health. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was concern that leaving the provision of public spaces and recreation opportunities to the private sector would lead to inadequate facilities and the enclosure of too much land for private use.
As the cold war intensified, the U.S. government also wanted to keep sufficient numbers of young Americans fit enough to fight in the army if required. As a consequence, a number of government agencies were empowered during the early years of the Kennedy administration so that national and state-level plans to implement enhanced land access were put into practice. Agencies and plans were supported by the creation of a Land and Water Conservation Fund that would use federal funds to purchase and maintain land areas for public use that were likely otherwise to have been used for housing or industrial development. Priority was given to areas with very high levels of population density, and the principle was adopted that land set-aside for public recreational use must be done so in perpetuity, unless it should be replaced by land of equivalent utility.
The act received bipartisan support and was signed on September 3, 1964. Funds were provided initially by such measures as charges for using national recreation areas, a tax on motorboat fuel, and the proceeds of sales of existing publicly held real estate properties. However, there was continual pressure on the fund to gather sufficient levels of money, not least because of the rising price of land where it became apparent that the government was willing to purchase it. Additional sources of funding were authorized and from 1971-89, an annual levy of $300 million was also provided. The vision of the act was modified to include more recreational land use within urban and residential areas, as well as within driving distance. This was important in helping poor people to partake of recreational areas despite lacking resources for transportation. Such use of shared public space also had a measurable beneficial impact upon urban living.
One of the most innovative components of the law was its Section 2, which established that the fund would be funded by federal revenues, especially including a proportion of receipts from oil and gas leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf. This lucrative source of capital, property of the people of the United States, has been utilized successfully to maintain the fund for decades, though not always to the degree intended by the original act.
By 2006 approximately $7.2 billion had been disbursed on some 40,000 projects in just about every part of the United States and overseas territories. The funds were provided equally from state and federal treasuries. State-level agencies have become increasingly innovative and imaginative in planning and managing outdoor resources in the interests of their residents.
After 1994 Congress also permitted the disbursement of funds from this program to reduce crime. The act has stimulated improvements in public management generally, and is an important symbol of the importance of the public sector providing common goods for all people that would be unavailable in a purely market-based system or with an insufficiently powerful government sector. The administration of George W. Bush proposed to end the scheme.
- Peter E. Black and Brian L. Fisher, Conservation of Water and Related Land Resources (CRC, 2000);
- Richard J. Dolesh, “Fighting for Funding: NRPA Needs All Members to Act Now and Save the Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program,” Parks and Recreation (v.40/6, 2005).