Clark County residents don’t have to travel far to witness the benefits of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Over the years, the fund has helped preserve public lands that have become Beacon Rock State Park, Salmon Creek Park and the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail. And just this month, it helped the Columbia Land Trust finalize purchase of 4,900 acres along the Klickitat River Canyon, preserving public access for angling, hunting, paddling and sightseeing.
Now, after years of debate about the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Congress has ensured similar benefits for future generations. The Great American Outdoors Act has passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support and is expected to be signed by President Trump.
The bill — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted in favor — will ensure about $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase and preserve lands. Enacted during the 1960s behind the leadership of Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the fund collects royalties paid by gas and oil companies for drilling rights.
In recent years, however, much of the money has been diverted by Congress for other purposes, leaving the fund — and public lands — perpetually shortchanged.
“Taking this revenue from oil and gas offshoring and putting it into land conservation has been a big win for the American people,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and a longtime proponent of the fund, said last month when the bill passed the Senate. “Not only did they get open space and (the ability) to recreate, it puts money back into our juggernaut outdoor economy as well.”
Studies have shown that each fund dollar generates about $4 in economic value. According to Cantwell, outdoor recreation annually generates about $887 billion in consumer spending and supports more than 7 million jobs nationally.
In addition to the conservation fund, Congress approved $1.9 billion annually for five years to provide maintenance at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands. As Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said, visitors cannot enjoy those areas “if the bathrooms don’t work, if the trails and campgrounds aren’t open, or if the roads are in disrepair.”
That is the situation at too many national parks, where maintenance backlogs have grown to an estimated $20 billion. As of 2018, according to the National Park Service, that included $186 million in needed repairs at Mount Rainier National Park, along with $126 million at Olympic National Park and $51 million at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
Addressing the maintenance backlog is crucial to keeping parks accessible and enjoyable, but $9.5 million over five years is only a start. Congress must add additional funding in the future, viewing it as an investment that will pay dividends for generations.
Meanwhile, the acquisition of land in the Klickitat River Canyon by the Columbia Land Trust provides a case study of the dividends provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The purchase, made partly with LWCF money, completes the 11,000-acre Klickitat Canyon Conservation Area along Washington’s longest wild river.
Phil Rigdon of the Yakama Nation, which includes about one-third of the river, said: “It is important to share the understanding of the importance of enhancing and protecting these significant aquatic and ecological places because a watershed like the Klickitat is the last of its kind.”
The Great American Outdoors Act will help ensure that such lands endure.