I’m sitting in my office on a hot summer weekend wishing I were outside, like so many other Americans—catching a breeze off the ocean, swimming in a lake, walking a high mountain trail, fishing a cool river, or sitting beneath a big tree in a local park—enjoying the outdoors and getting a break from the many cares of everyday life.
What would our country be like without the parks, forests, refuges and productive farms and ranches that define our national character, are central to our way of life, and protect the air and water essential to our health?
We enjoy the many benefits of all these remarkable places because of the foresight of those who came before us. For more than 100 years Americans have believed in the conservation and careful use of public and private lands and waters.
Now, this week, Congress is poised to take an historic step forward in our nation’s conservation history. There are bills pending in the U.S. Senate and in the House of Representatives that would increase the amount and certainty of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
The “Land and Water” what?
Most people have not heard of this program, and yet on this Saturday afternoon, millions of Americans are benefitting from its tangible and lasting accomplishments.
Created by Congress in 1965, the LWCF uses a portion of the revenues from offshore oil and gas extraction in public waters to:
- buy land for national parks, forests and wildlife refuges;
- create state and local parks and recreation areas; and
- purchase conservation easements over private farms, forests and ranches so they can remain in undeveloped and productive use.
Many of these projects also protect water resources for use by people and fish and wildlife. And in this era of climate change, protected areas—such as saved forests and wetlands—store carbon and help buffer us from the impacts of droughts and storms.
It’s difficult to travel anywhere in America without seeing evidence of how successful the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been. But despite its success, the LWCF has never been given the funding envisioned by its creators.
While Congress authorized $900 million per year for the fund, it has only appropriated the full amount twice in the program’s 45 years—even while federal royalties from offshore oil and gas have exceeded $7 billion per year. And this $900 million a year represents less than .00003% of the current annual federal budget.
In short, the fund is owed $17 billion in offshore oil revenues promised in the original legislation.
I hope that Congress will now correct this shortfall. In oil-spill bills that will go before the House and Senate this week, there is very likely to be language that would restore the original intent to fund LWCF at $900 million per year and make that funding more certain in the years to come.
This would come not a moment too soon. America is losing 3 million acres of rural land to development each year. A recent poll showed that Americans recognize the urgency of acting—more than 80% of the public supports using oil and gas revenues to protect our natural areas.
(It is important to add here that Congress also may consider creation of an Ocean Trust Fund that would, in some respects, act like a Land and Water Fund for coastal waters by providing reliable support for the conservation and restoration of marshes, sea grass beds, reefs, barrier islands and other features along our ocean coasts and the Great Lakes. One such provision is likely to appear in the House oil spill bill. A freestanding bill has been introduced in the Senate. These initiatives could work in tandem with the LWCF and are also worthy of our support.)
From its inception in the 1960s, the Land and Water Conservation Fund—like so much of America’s conservation history—has been a bi-partisan effort. As Congressmen and Senators discuss the LWCF over the next two weeks, I am confident they will recognize that our parks and open spaces can literally be common ground that can help bridge the differences among the American people.
Among those Americans out at the beach today or walking in the mountains are my children and grandchildren. Having grandchildren lengthens one’s perspective. I worry about the country and the world they will inherit.
So, I hope that as Congress considers the Land and Water Fund and the Ocean Trust Fund this week, the members will think of approving these bills not as a burden, not as more of the regular course of business, but rather as a privilege.
Ensuring that we pass down some part of the legacy of America’s magnificent lands and waters healthy and intact to our grandchildren is a rare opportunity to do something profound–something that we know from all our past history will be of value to the next generation, just as virtually all American’s today value the parks, natural areas and productive farms and forestlands that have been passed down to us.
(image: The Dakota backwaters in Wisconsin, part of the Upper Mississippi River Basin © Robert J. Hurt)