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News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Land and Water Conservation Fund vital to all

The Columbian
Published: March 8, 2020, 6:03am

Benefits from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund are readily apparent throughout Clark County.

Over the past several decades, areas such as Salmon Creek Park, Lower Washougal River Greenway and portions of the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail have been acquired or improved using money from the federal fund. Now, with a new agreement between Senate leaders and the Trump administration, there is hope that future generations will enjoy similar amenities.

A bipartisan group of senators last week announced an agreement to spend about $2.2 billion a year on conservation and outdoor recreation projects, in addition to park maintenance. The plan would fully support the decadesold Land and Water Conservation Fund and add about $1.3 billion a year for deferred maintenance at national parks. If approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump it “will be the most significant conservation legislation enacted by Congress in nearly half a century,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

It would, indeed, be significant. And it would end Congress’ egregious misuse of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Unlike most federal programs, the fund is supported by rights fees and royalties from extraction industries such as oil and gas companies rather than by taxpayers. Yet that money typically has been diverted to other programs, leaving the program perpetually underfunded.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is authorized to collect $900 million a year for projects throughout the country, but it typically receives about half that amount. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who for years has advocated for full funding of the program, says it has been underfunded by more than $20 billion. “That’s why I am so grateful that our years of effort to get full and permanent funding for LWCF now has the bipartisan support we need to make it the law of the land,” Cantwell said.

The agreement’s funding for maintenance at national parks also should be lauded. The National Park Service says more than $11 billion in maintenance has been deferred over the years because of budget shortfalls. As of 2018, that included $186 million at Mount Rainier National Park, $126 million at Olympic National Park and $51 million at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Finally approving necessary funding for conservation efforts and for national parks should be regarded as an investment in our house, like a homeowner replacing a long-neglected roof. Public lands allow all Americans to enjoy the splendor of the outdoors and the unique landscapes that help make this nation unique, and those lands require care.

Now, the hope is that the agreement forged last week will hold together. President Trump routinely has attempted to slash funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund; his recent budget proposal recommended $15 million for the program — less than 2 percent of its authorized level. Congress routinely has rejected harsh budget cuts but still has not fully funded the LWCF.

Trump’s sudden interest in full funding follows requests from Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana — who are up for re-election this year. But regardless of the motivation, caring for public lands is a worthwhile endeavor that benefits taxpayers. As Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said: “This is about doing the right thing for America.”

We agree. And we hope that congressional members from both parties agree as well.