If you’ve ever set foot on the Appalachian Trail, visited a national park like Joshua Tree, or even taken advantage of a neighborhood park in your home town, you’ve probably reaped the benefits of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Established in 1964 by Congress to conserve land and provide outdoor recreational spaces, the program has funded hundreds of thousands of projects. Now, there’s an interactive map that lets you explore where they all are.
The map, created by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which does conservation work across the country and often uses Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grants, lets anyone zoom in on their favorite town or city to see what parks and trails exist thanks to LWCF, or explore iconic outdoor spots across the country. LWCF funds federal, state, and local projects, and until this map, that data on all those different projects had never been in one place. It’s not 100% comprehensive, says Myke Bybee, legislative director at Trust for Public Land, but it includes over 150,000 individual project records. LWCF has funded projects in every U.S. state and territory, and nearly every county.
“I hope people are excited and surprised to see the breadth and amount of projects that have been completed,” he says. Looking at the thousands of dots on the map—which are differentiated for specific land management agencies like the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service, as well as programs like the Highland Conservation Act, which protects drinking water, or the State and Local Assistance Program, which funds parks—it’s hard not to think of how different the country may have looked were it not for this fund, and all this protected land.
LWCF doesn’t use any taxpayer money; instead, it relies on royalties from offshore oil and gas leasing for funding. (The Great American Outdoors Act, signed in August 2020, promised to fully fund the LCWF, but enforcement has been spotty.) When it was set up in the ’60s, “Congress recognized they were extracting public resources, and there needed to be a way to mitigate those impacts,” Bybee says. Today we have a different understanding of how crucial it is to cut fossil fuel use, and Bybee says ultimately there will have to be a change. But he hopes the same philosophy endures—that industries, whether hydrocarbon-based or otherwise, reimburse the public for their impacts.
The map of projects also highlights how much more work there is to do when it comes to land conservation. The Biden administration has pledged to protect 30% of all U.S. lands by 2030 and has made a particular point of providing more equitable access to nature. Communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived places,” according to a recent report from the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress. Bybee hopes the map shows that land conservation can be an important tool to tackle those challenges, by illustrating what the fund has been able to accomplish over its more than 55 years.
“We want to say, ‘Here’s the history, here’s a look back, but this is why we think it’s relevant today, because these challenges continue,’” he says. “This tool can continue to be useful.”