Sunday, September 20, 2020
Sept. 20, 2020

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In Our View: Permanently pay for vital conservation fund

The Columbian
Published:

The next time you stroll along Fallen Leaf Lake near Camas, or ride a bike along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail through Vancouver, or take the kids to Kiwanis Park near Battle Ground, you can be thankful for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

For more than five decades, the federally approved fund has been used to purchase, maintain and improve spaces for the benefit of the public. But without reliable funding, the program amounts to little more than a good idea. Congress should require funding and prove that its support for the program is not simply an empty gesture.

That is the goal behind the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act (S. 1081), which a Senate committee started discussing this week. “One of the reasons I’m so anxious about figuring this out and getting this right to continue making investments in LWCF and to take care of the backlog in maintenance is I feel like climate is impacting our public lands,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a co-sponsor of the bill. “And if we don’t have all the tools to best deal with that, then we are going to be challenged.”

A similar bill in the House has 100 co-sponsors, including five Democratic members of the Washington delegation but no Republicans from the state.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses royalties from oil and gas company leases to create spaces that can be enjoyed by all. Grants have contributed more than $3 million toward the purchase and creation of nearly two dozen spaces in Clark County alone.

Congress allowed authorization of the fund to lapse in September before reviving it as part of a massive public lands bill signed this year by President Donald Trump. Good idea. Except that mandatory funding for the LWCF was not included, leaving the program subject to the whims of the appropriations process.

That has proven to be a specious approach over the years as, according to Cantwell, the program has been funded at less than half its authorized level — a cumulative shortfall of $22 billion.

The permanent funding act would earmark $900 million a year to support projects throughout the country. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the lead sponsor, said: “Permanent funding is the next step Congress must take after our historic achievement earlier this year to permanently reauthorize the LWCF program.”

But the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used by four federal agencies, remains a political football. A report from the Government Accountability Office that was publicly released last week says: “We found that, unlike the other agencies, Bureau of Land Management does not maintain centralized data on how it acquires this land. It also could not identify all lands it acquired with LWCF funds. We recommended that the bureau improve its data collection efforts.”

Indeed, accountability is necessary, and critics of permanent funding say that removing it from the appropriations process would reduce oversight. But unlike most federal programs, the conservation fund is supported by rights fees rather than by taxpayers. Arguments against the fund seem to be driven more by ideological opposition to the very idea of publicly owned land rather than by genuine concern for taxpayers.

Such taxpayers in Clark County reap the benefits provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund when they visit the Salmon Creek Trail or Abrams Park or David Douglas Park. Congress should see to it that those benefits continue for decades to come.

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