Editorial: Conservation fund needs quick compromise
A popular federal land conservation program that has, until now, been noncontroversial, was allowed to die and now efforts to resurrect it appear stuck in typical, political gridlock.
The U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a successful source of revenue that provided billions of tax-free money for land preservation throughout the country since it was launched in 1964.
However, it expired Sept. 30, and, without approval, millions of dollars that once went toward protecting and improving public lands will be lost.
So far, there has been little compromise among the Republican leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee and nearly everyone else.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has dug in his heels, saying he is against simply re-authorizing the measure and believes now is an opportunity to make improvements to it.
Democrats and environmental groups say his reforms actually gut the program. It looks like we are a long way from compromise, which is a shame because lawmakers should have had this figured out months ago.
Recently, members of the environmental group Western Values Project have unleashed a campaign urging lawmakers to stand up to Bishop. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, is one of the committee members being encouraged to show more leadership on this issue.
Judging by the committee hearing Wednesday, negotiations are not going well, and if Newhouse can somehow help with that, it would be a wonderful achievement.
The fund uses money from offshore drilling royalties and natural gas leases for park and environmental purposes. The idea being that companies who use natural resources to earn a profit should give something back to the public for conservation.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said at the hearing that an estimated $120 million has been lost and not collected since the fund expired. That number will just keep growing the longer lawmakers wait to come to an agreement.
Grijalva claims Bishop’s draft plan is micromanaging the legislation “to death,” and he is concerned part of the proposal ends up becoming a rebate program for oil and gas companies.
That would be alarming if that were the case.
Bishop said the diverted money Grijalva is talking about would be used for education purposes in the industry, which would benefit the nation in the long-run. He also wants to see less federal land acquisition and more money spent on state park and recreation activities.
In the Tri-Cities, the fund has helped pay for the 23-mile Sacajawea Heritage Trail along the Columbia River, Highland Park in Pasco, Vista Park in Kennewick and Burlington Park in Connell, pools in Kennewick and Richland and the Badger Mountain Spray Park.
It also benefits the state’s economy by generating 198,000 jobs in outdoor recreation activities, $2 billion in annual state and local tax revenue and $21.6 billion in annual consumer spending, according to the state Recreation and Conservation Office.
At the moment, there appears to be little give by Bishop and his supporters, or by those who want the fund re-established as-is.
Newhouse is on the committee and has an opportunity to work with both sides and find some middle ground. Someone needs to be a negotiator, and he is in a position to do that. We suggest he tries. We him to see this through.