OPINION: Little-known Land and Water Conservation Fund vital to outdoor legacy
Recreationists have returned to America’s national parks and wildlife refuges since the government shutdown ended, but we must remember the lessons we have learned from this experience. The outcry over the impact of these closures on our way of life, our communities, our economy and our natural resources served as a clear reminder of the importance of our public lands to all Americans.
During the shutdown, gateway communities near national parks lost millions of dollars in revenue, families were forced to cancel long-planned vacations to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and hunters who waited years to draw a tag were denied a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they might never have again.
And although the shutdown is over, other threats remain. Many of our national parks and outdoor places have been protected by a little-known federal program: the Land and Water Conservation Fund. For nearly 50 years, the fund has provided Washingtonians with the assurance that our purple mountain majesties will be there for the next generation.
Despite the clear mandate for further investments to enhance, protect and increase access to our shared outdoor heritage, actions in Congress threaten to undermine this wildly successful program.
Washington state was among the hardest hit — each day Mount Rainier National Park was closed, we lost an average of more than $90,000 in tourism revenue. Figures like that can make or break family businesses in gateway towns that rely on travel and tourism.
Landscapes like the shores of Puget Sound, the valleys of the Olympic rain forest, the peaks of the Cascades and the vast and ever-flowing Columbia River Gorge not only offer us places to camp, hike, hunt and fish, but are major economic drivers across our state.
A Seattle Chamber of Commerce survey of the organization’s members in 2011 found a majority of Puget Sound area businesses ranked our region’s quality of life and environmental surroundings as top assets for retaining quality staff. In addition, outdoor recreation supports a $22.5 billion industry and 227,000 jobs in Washington, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently put forward a proposal that would completely eliminate funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time in the program’s history.
In her first major address Oct. 31, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the former chief executive of REI from Washington state, called on Congress to fully fund it. We agreed with the secretary when she said, “Passing along the blessings that we have inherited will take action and a commitment to take the long view, particularly in this era when our lands and waters are facing unprecedented challenges.”
With the Pacific Crest Trail, Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, the Mountains to Sound Greenway, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and countless local and state parks, trails, and recreation areas, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect Washington’s most precious public resources.
Our nation’s premier conservation program does not use a dime of taxpayer money. Rather, $900 million in offshore oil and gas lease revenue is supposed to be invested in parks and outdoor recreation opportunities each year. But year after year, Congress has broken that pact with the American people and diverted a majority of funds for unrelated purposes.
This year, funding levels fell to about $305 million due to cuts and sequestration. Fourteen projects in Washington state are up for funding in 2014.
From protecting land along the Pacific Crest Trail and ensuring access to ranges in the Cascades for hiking and hunting to protecting the last urban forest in Bothell, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is needed urgently this year in Washington.
Community visions to provide new parks for kids, increase access to trails, and keep air and water clean for all cannot be realized without support from the fund. We hope Congress will rise to that challenge.
The 50th anniversary of America’s most important conservation investment tool is upon us. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has always held bipartisan support, first with President Eisenhower’s Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission and then President Kennedy’s vision that, as we deplete one natural resource, we must invest in another natural resource for the country.
A bipartisan poll released last month confirmed that a vast majority of Americans — 85 percent — think their congressional representatives should honor the commitment to fund conservation through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Across party lines, eight in 10 voters said the public receives its money’s worth when we invest in protecting water, land, air and wildlife. This is one policy issue that Americans consistently agree is an example of government working well.
Our forbearers had the wisdom to set aside treasured lands for the permanent enjoyment of the American people. That pact between the American people and their government will be broken unless we see some much-needed leadership from Congress in defense of our outdoor economy and our natural heritage.
Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This unique and successful program expires in 2015. We hope our former colleagues still in Congress do the right thing and lead the nation to reauthorizing and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund to ensure that our natural legacy is passed down to the next generation.
Norm Dicks, former U.S. representative for Washington’s 6th Congressional District, is a board member of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. Dan Evans, former governor and U.S. senator for Washington, is a founding co-chair of the coalition.