Almost unnoticed in President Obama’s budget for 2014 is a strong commitment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and, with that investment, the hope that this remarkably successful federal program will be renewed beyond its current expiration date in 2015.
While many Americans may not recognize its name, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was created by Congress in 1965 to direct a portion of federal offshore oil and gas receipts to acquire national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and historic sites (including civil war battlefields and places like the Flight 93 Memorial), and to provide matching grants to states and local governments to buy conservation and recreation land and to construct facilities for outdoor recreation.
Despite its non-taxpayer revenue source, only a fraction of the receipts authorized for LWCF has actually been appropriated for the purposes for which it was intended. The balance has been diverted for unauthorized uses. And yet, throughout its history, LWCF has changed and evolved to more effectively provide important, lasting and tangible benefits to our country — benefits that are central to the American way of life:
- Opportunities for outdoor experiences for every American family ranging from sports fields in urban parks to remote wilderness areas. This funding now includes providing better access to existing public lands particularly for hunters and fishermen. Outdoor recreation is now a huge industry in this country valued in a just-released study at $646 billion annually to the American economy.
- The conservation of our country’s rich natural, scenic and historic heritage so essential to giving the diverse U.S. population a sense of pride in and belonging to our nation.
- Support for retaining working farms, forests and ranches that provide multiple benefits such as wildlife habitat, rural economic activity, food and fiber production, and continuation of a traditional way of life.
- The conservation of natural systems and natural features that protect water resources, including drinking water supplies, and shield communities from the impacts of storms and floods.
When the LWCF is described to them, an overwhelming majority of the Americans recognize both the importance of its public benefits and the logic of paying for them with receipts from the extraction of publicly owned resources. In a national poll conducted for The Nature Conservancy last June by a bi-partisan research team, four-in-five voters (82%) indicated support for funding the LWCF in the way originally intended by Congress.
Now, the President has said in his 2014 budget proposal that, rather than going away in two years, the promise of LWCF can be realized by ensuring that off shore oil and gas leasing fees go for their intended purpose at the fully authorized level of $900 million a year. This money would purchase land for such projects as National Wildlife Refuges along the Upper Mississippi, the Connecticut River in four New England states, and in the headwaters of Florida’s Everglades.
He has recommended protection of the hallowed ground of civil war battlefields, the creation of hiking trails in dozens of states, the conservation of working ranches in Montana and Kansas, of working forests in Mississippi and Maine, and the expansion of National Parks in California and South Carolina. He has allocated funding to the states for their own conservation and recreation projects.
With investments like these, re-authorizing and fully funding LWCF shouldn’t be so difficult. Many in Congress seem to agree, and a bi-partisan bill re-authorizing LWCF and honestly dedicating its funding to natural resource purposes has now been introduced in the Senate.
If we look across the changes in America over the 48 years since the LWCF legislation was enacted, and the addition of almost 100 million to our nation’s population since 1965, we can be grateful that the bipartisan creators of LWCF had the foresight to see that generations to come would need and value places to enjoy the outdoors of this beautiful country, to hunt and fish, to go to the beach on a summer afternoon, to learn about our rich history and heritage, to participate in competitive sports on spring evenings, to watch wildlife along a river at the break of day.
By 2050, there are projected to be another 85 million more Americans. It seems inconceivable that we would deny them these same opportunities by failing to renew our nation’s primary ongoing commitment to conservation and recreation.
[Image: Confluence of the Crow Wing River and the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Image source: Garth Fuller/TNC]