I watched my almost-3-year-old grandson chase a small sandpiper along Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore recently. Two fishermen stood by their rods looking at the surf, but beyond them there was only wild beach extending to the south as far as I could see.

Had it not been set aside as a park, the beach at Canaveral would have been a jumble of condominiums like so much of Florida’s coast. But instead, it is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year bringing jobs and tourism dollars to the local economy. It also shelters the mainland from tropical storms and provides habitat for many kinds of plants and animals.

If we want to make sure special places like this continue to be set aside for public use, Congress must take action this week to protect the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This is the federal government’s key program for conserving land and water resources by taking a small portion of offshore energy revenues to create Federal and state forests, parks, seashores and wildlife refuges. But funds intended for this program have often been diverted elsewhere in its 45-year history.

There is a lot of talk these days about America being exceptional in its history, governance and traditions. There is debate about the meaning of this sense of exceptionalism and whether it will allow our nation to better endure the certain problems of the years ahead.

One of the ways our country is clearly different from the rest of the world is our longstanding commitment to conserving nature. More than a hundred years ago, we made a decision that taking care of our land and water was a national priority. Many of the initial actions to set aside wild places were taken by that uniquely American President, Teddy Roosevelt. These mostly involved lands already owned by the Federal government located in the mountains of the west. But as public parks and forests captured the imagination of the American people, it became evident that some land would have to be purchased from private owners who must be paid a fair price for their property.

As the country’s population increased, there was more demand for protection of water supplies, forest resources and places to hunt and fish. More money was needed to conserve land before it was irrevocably damaged by change. Congress’ solution was the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act passed in 1964.

In an example of fiscal prudence and forward thinking, the Congress determined, with broad bi-partisan approval, that $900 million in Federal Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas rentals and royalty receipts (a fraction of the total income from that source) should be deposited in a dedicated conservation account in the Treasury. It is an idea that still has broad public support. In a poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy this summer, 86% of Americans favored the continued use of funds from oil and gas fees to help preserve our natural areas.

Recognizing that America loses 3 million acres of open land to development each year, Senators Max Baucus of Montana and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia introduced legislation that would protect the promised $900 million annually in oil and gas revenues for conservation purposes. The House Legislation passed last summer, and the Senate legislation has gained more support but has been sidetracked in the disputes over so many other issues. There is still time for it to be added to the Tax Extenders Bill as would be appropriate given its focus on the allocation and use of government revenues.

We are all worried about the America we will leave to our grandchildren. That day on the Canaveral Seashore, I scooped my grandson into my arms to lift him above an incoming wave, and he said, “I love it here.” Congress should listen to him and understand that one way we can continue to make America exceptional is to renew our long bi-partisan commitment to saving the beaches, the winding rivers, forests and tree shaded city parks that define us and our love for our country.

You can join us in saving America’s great outdoors and supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund by contacting your members of Congress today about this important legislation.

(Image: Waiting for the Moment. Image credit: Capt. Kodak/Flickr through a Creative Commons License)

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