Congress may give conservation fund extended life
A budget bill headed for congressional approval Friday revives the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund for three years.
The bill also budgets $450 million in royalties from oil and gas leases on public lands for the fund for the coming fiscal year.
It’s big progress for a popular program Congress had allowed to expire last fall. Washington state has a special connection to the 50-year-old federal program. Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson introduced the original Land and Water Conservation Fund Act to the Senate at the request of President Kennedy. The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964.
The program has invested more than $600 million in some 600 projects across Washington state since its inception, according to a 50-year anniversary report on the fund by the nonprofit Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.
Many beloved landscapes in the state were preserved for public access and recreational use by the fund, from the hiking trails on Mount Si to portions of Mount Rainier National Park, the Pacific Crest Trail and Deception Pass State Park.
The fiscal year 2016 spending bill is anticipated to include more than $10 million for preservation in Washington, including about 20,000 acres of working forest lands near Mount St. Helens; farmland within the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve near Coupeville in Island County; and moving a piece of the Pacific Crest Trail into the woods from under ski lifts at the Summit West Ski area at Snoqualmie Pass.
That project also will change the trail’s current crossing at Interstate 90 from a heavily traveled exit underpass to a lesser used underpass with a shorter and safer crossing.
Advocates for the Land and Water Conservation Fund were delighted to see it revived for three years — but disappointed only half the oil and gas royalties available for the fund is proposed to be allocated to it.
As a consequence, more than $13 million in projects proposed for funding in the president’s budget in Washington were dropped from the omnibus spending bill before Congress, including protection of 23,580 acres of timberland along Hood Canal in Mason County threatened with development. Advocated said keeping the land in forest helps protect water quality for nearby shellfish beds and would also connect links of a county recreational trail.
“We are very grateful to the Washington congressional delegation,” said Cathy Baker, director of federal government relations for the Nature Conservancy Washington Program, based in Seattle. “But more than half the programs proposed for our state did not receive funding. And while we are pleased we got a lifeline for three years there is still a great need, and that need is not a short-term need. It is long-term, and we are hoping the fund can receive permanent authorization.”