A short-term victory for parks, public lands

Among the lumps of coal — riders attached to the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed and President Obama signed last week — were a few diamonds, including the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that expired for the first time in its 50-year history at the end of September.

In the past the fund has enjoyed bipartisan support when it came up for reauthorization, but conservative opposition this year threatened the program that provides financial support and matching grants for national and state public lands acquisitions and development of parks and recreation programs, all funded by royalties paid by the oil and gas industry for off-shore drilling leases.

Following Senate passage a bill that would have permanently authorized the program idled in the House as Republican leadership refused to even allow the bill a committee hearing. The scramble to approve the must-pass omnibus spending bill, however, freed up the legislation. It wasn’t the permanent reauthorization sought by supporters — among them, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, the state’s Democratic representatives and Republican Rep. Dave Reichert — but the program will run again for at least three years and received $450 million for 2016, a boost over its 2015 funding but still half of its intended budget of $900 million.

In Washington state the program can now distribute nearly $10 million in funding that will fill in gaps along the Pacific Crest Trail to improve safety and public access; protect working forests near Mount St. Helens; protect watershed along the Yakima River to ensure clean water for farms, fisheries and communities; acquire property to protect fisheries and water quality near Lake Quinault in the Olympic National Park; and purchase 165 acres of historic farmland at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island.

The program also provides funding administered by Washington state’s Recreation and Conservation Funding Board. Two projects likely to receive grants include:

$100,000 for Arlington’s Haller Park, which will go toward the construction of new restrooms at the park at a higher elevation than the current facility, which is prone to flooding from the Stillaguamish River; and

$500,000 for the purchase of land to add up to 22 acres to the 64-acre urban forest in Bothell known as the North Creek Forest, which is used as an outdoor classroom for local schools and colleges, protects an important salmon-bearing watershed and is the last bit of undeveloped land in a sea of residential and commercial development.

Not to appear unappreciative of the three years’ of funding that was secured, but when the Land and Water Conservation Fund is again before Congress for reauthorization, that approval should be made permanent, removing the program from what has become a process vulnerable to partisan politics and the whims of obstructionists.

Introduced by Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in 1964, the fund has used a portion of the money generated by our oil and gas resources to protect our natural resources, creating and enhancing parks and other public lands. In its 50 years it has provided more than $500 million in funding in Washington state alone.

It has more than proved its value in protecting public lands, supporting recreational businesses and encouraging families to explore the nation’s natural heritage.

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