Don’t Squander The Bipartisan Commitment To Conserve America’s Special Natural Places

By Patrick Leahy

Imagine a successful and popular program that saves our special natural places, such as parks, recreation areas, wildlife refuges and forests.  Imagine further that this is accomplished not with tax dollars but with royalties paid by companies that extract oil or minerals from our public lands.  What’s not to love about a program like that?

Now imagine that some in Congress want to kill or weaken that program.  In fact, its charter just expired on Oct. 1.

For 50 years, a bipartisan commitment has promoted the preservation of our national parks, forests and refuges, and the vistas that are so iconic in our national identity.  But today we find ourselves yet again in the midst of a made-in-Washington crisis that devalues this history of shared commitment, replacing it with the misplaced ire of those who do not understand its profound, community driven impact on the land and on our economy.

On September 30, the authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), America’s most successful conservation and recreation program, was allowed to expire.  Founded on the principle of balancing the depletion of certain natural resources by conserving other resources, the Fund uses revenues from royalties of offshore oil and gas extraction to support the conservation of our land and water, a symmetry that conservation advocates have praised.  More to the point, the Fund is supported at no cost to taxpayers.  Similarly, congressional inaction allowed the Historic Preservation Fund – also budget-neutral program with longstanding bipartisan support – to lapse. Together, these twin programs represent key commitments to protecting our nation’s historic resources and lands for future generations.

For 50 years the Land and Water Conservation Fund has supported the creation of parks and refuges, but it has also filled in plots of land at risk of loss through development in our national parks to create a seamless park system that is easier and more cost-effective to manage.  It has provided resources to local communities to achieve otherwise cost-prohibitive conservation projects in small towns.  It supports community playgrounds and maintains trails, while fostering and protecting our innate appreciation of the world around us, and it accomplishes all of this while being a boon to local economies.

In Vermont more than $123 million in LWCF grants have supported hundreds projects over the last five decades, and the benefits can be seen across every county in the Green Mountain State.  These grants back an economy of outdoor recreation supporting 35,000 jobs, generating $187 million in state tax revenue and $2.5 billion in retail sales and services in Vermont alone, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.  On top of this, an estimated 545,000 people hunt, fish and enjoy the wildlife of the Green Mountain State every year, a stunning number that nearly matches our state’s entire population. 

In addition to local recreation projects, the LWCF in Vermont has supported the creation of our state’s only National Park, the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historical Park.  It has helped to add 100,000 acres to the Green Mountain National Forest, to establish the Conte National Wildlife Refuge, and to forever preserve large swaths of the Appalachian and Long Trails. These are treasures today, preserved for future generations. 

Across the country, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been valued as America’s premier conservation program – an outgrowth of what has been called “America’s Best Idea,” the creation of our National Park system.  It has drawn strong bipartisan support for half a century, even as the political atmosphere has become more divisive.  I recently led a bipartisan coalition of 53 senators representing every corner of the nation in asking for a short-term extension of the LWCF, and a commitment to work to permanently authorize and fund the program.  We sent a similar letter calling on Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Reid to support permanent funding for the program, which was followed by a similar bipartisan letter from members of the House to Speaker Boehner. 

But despite this strong bipartisan and bicameral support, there are those who seek to throw this longstanding, commonsense program out the window, shutting down one of the few reliable sources that fund conservation work across the country, a truly devastating bid that threatens our land and water and our local economies.  It makes no sense.

Several times last week, opponents of the widely popular LWCF objected to extending its authorization, claiming that the Fund was used to purchase privately held land from landowners.  But that is precisely what the Fund is intended to support: the purchase of land from willing sellers interested in seeing land protected rather than developed.  Often these land deals include land exchanges, thus ensuring that the nation’s most sensitive lands are not developed, while ensuring that other working lands remain privately owned.

Too often we see these deals evaporate because the funding is not there.  This is why we need to ensure the Fund is permanently authorized, and fully funded.  These projects should not slip away, as we have seen in Vermont and other parts of the country, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Fund operates, and how it is supported.

We have watched conservation funding wither across the country while developments encroach our precious national parks, and while the real threat of climate change draws closer and closer.  Now is not the time to break a commitment to conserve our natural resources, our heritage, and the legacy we will hand to our children and grandchildren.  We must value and protect our heritage by renewing the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

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[Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is Vermont’s senior U.S. senator.]

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