The importance of congressional support for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is … well, let’s allow Sen. Maria Cantwell to explain: “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the country’s most successful conservation law, supporting an outdoor economy of more than $600 billion annually and six million American jobs,” said the Washington Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “The LWCF is essential to preserving America’s public outdoor spaces, which improve our quality of life and provide important recreational and cultural opportunities.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed into law 50 years ago, has played a role in providing additions to national parks, national wildlife refuges and national forests, and has contributed to habitat preservation. “In Washington state,” Cantwell said, “the LWCF has helped preserve places like the Columbia River Gorge, Lake Chelan, and Olympic National Park, and it has improved management of our public lands.” The fund also provides matching grants to states and communities so they can create and protect local parks, trails and greenspaces.
But despite boasting a long list of successes and playing a vital role in the conservation of wilderness areas, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has become a target for critics in the Republican-led Congress. Both the Senate and the House have passed nonbinding resolutions that would allow for the transfer of federal public lands to the states, with the exception of national parks and monuments. In other words, there are some in Congress who see no problem with land now owned by all of the people potentially being auctioned off by a cash-strapped state. In other words, there are some in Congress who believe that allowing “increased resource production” — as called for in the House resolution — is preferable to unfettered, pristine natural beauty.
Today, Cantwell’s committee, chaired by Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, will hear testimony “on the reauthorization of and potential reforms to” the fund, and we’ll make this easy for them: The Land and Water Conservation Fund should be permanently reauthorized before it expires in September. A bill currently in the House would provide such reauthorization, and it borrows language from a Senate bill sponsored by Cantwell earlier this year. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., is the only Northwest representative who has signed on to the proposal thus far, and we urge Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and other regional representatives to lend their support.
Meanwhile, the debate in Congress is disconcerting to supporters of the fund. For example, the buzz word of “reforms” in the committee’s hearing agenda all too often means budget cuts that gut programs regardless of their proven effectiveness.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is supported not through taxes, but primarily through fees on companies that drill for oil and gas on the continent’s outer shelf. As Wilderness.org explains, “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is based on a simple idea: When you deplete the earth’s finite natural resources, some of the proceeds should pay to strengthen conservation.” Since the 1970s, funding has been set at $900 million annually, but money routinely has been diverted away from the fund and used for other purposes.
All of this is problematic for a fund that helps ensure the wilderness and the public access that help define the United States. Having vast swaths of land owned by the people and for the people is sacrosanct and should be protected by Congress.