On February 14, Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Richard Burr (R-NC) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced Senate Bill 338, legislation to re-authorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). They were joined by cosponsors Mark Udall (D-CO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Tom Udall (D-NM).
I have listed all these Senators’ names because they are heroes for taking action to save the kind of practical, down to earth conservation of America’s natural resources that has been important to the American people for generations — heroes because without action now the Land and Water Conservation Fund is about to disappear.
The original Land and Water Conservation Fund legislation was introduced into Congress 50 years ago this week when John F. Kennedy was President and Senator Tom Udall’s father, Stewart, was the Secretary of the Interior. The idea of the fund was straightforward — take some of the proceeds from the leasing of publicly owned offshore oil and gas resources and reinvest that money in creating state, local and national parks, protected wildlife habitat, and forests. The bill authorized $900 million a year in lease proceeds to be used for those purposes, but, sadly, the promise of that funding has been broken many times over. Only once in the last 50 years has the full $900 million been appropriated. The unspent money has been diverted into the federal budget.
So by my count the U.S. Treasury now owes the Land and Water Conservation Fund more than $17 billion.
Even though it has been shortchanged, the LWCF has produced profound and lasting benefits reaching into almost every county in America — new National Wildlife Refuges and state wildlife management areas where hunters wait for waterfowl on cold autumn mornings, public beaches close to cities where families go to escape the summer heat, metropolitan parks where kids build strength and character through athletic competition, wild seashores, mountains and canyons that provide opportunities for adventure in the outdoors, and historic sites that represent the pain and triumph of America’s rich history.
And the LWCF has not been a static program. It has evolved over time to fit the changing needs of our country. It now recognizes the multiple benefits of conserved lands such as the protection of water resources, the buffering of communities from the impacts of storms and floods (certainly a clear need with changing weather patterns), the role of private working lands such as forests and ranches in conserving the scenic, economic, historic and wildlife values of whole watersheds and natural areas, and the importance of recreation and open space to children who now spend far too much time in front of computer screens.
While most Americans don’t know the Land and Water Conservation Fund by name, their support for the idea and for the conservation of this country’s resources is overwhelming. In a poll conducted by the research firms, Public Opinion Strategies and FM3 in 2012, 82% of likely voters supported reinvesting funds from oil and gas fees into land and water protection. In a poll released just a few days ago by the State of the Rockies Project at Colorado College four in five western voters view public lands as beneficial for their state’s economy and quality of life rather than detrimental to their state.
Despite the tangible accomplishments of LWCF, despite the long line of projects from every region of the country yet to be funded, despite the recent recognition that the outdoor recreation and public lands drive more than $650 billion in direct consumer spending and support over six million American jobs, and despite the near universal popularity of land and water conservation, the LWCF program is set to expire in 2015, 50 years after its creation. (The federal government is already at work on its 2015 budget so the impact of the potential loss of this program is already being felt).
Accomplishing re-authorization will not be routine. Not only have recent efforts to do so been thwarted, but there was an attempt in 2011 to zero out LWCF funding. So, yes, the sponsors of S.338 are my heroes.
They are legislators of both parties who have recognized that, as was the case in the passage of the original LWCF legislation nearly 50 years ago, conservation has always been a bi-partisan issue in America. They are legislators of both parties who understand that, long after their generation has passed on, the American people will always value the priceless gift from those who came before them of places to hunt and fish, to teach a child baseball, to remember their history, to walk by the seashore, to be bound together as one nation in no small part by their love and respect for the land and water of this beautiful country.
[Image: Montana's Swan Valley, part of the Crown of the Continent, and the southern end of the Mission Mountain Range in the distance. Image source: Gail Moser/TNC]