For the second time since it became law in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund — introduced in Congress by Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson to protect the nation’s natural resources, its cultural heritage and provide recreational opportunities for the people’s enjoyment — faces expiration.
“I would like to remind you that it is mostly to the open areas that 90 percent of all Americans go each year, seeking refreshment of body and spirit. These are the places they go to hunt, fish, camp, picnic, swim, for boating or driving for pleasure, or perhaps simply for relaxation or solitude,” Jackson said in August 1964, just before the Senate voted 92-1, to pass his bill.
For its first 50 years, the fund faced no threat of termination, regularly renewed by Congress with healthy bipartisan support. And in that time the fund — supported not with tax dollars but entirely through royalties paid by the oil and gas industry for offshore leases — has funded purchase and preservation of public land and water projects throughout the nation and development at national parks and matching grants for park projects at the state and local level, protecting more than 7 million acres and funding $16.8 billion in projects in all 50 states.
In Washington state alone, the fund has invested more than $675 million since its inception to expand and protect parks as large and as wild as Mount Rainier National Park to preserves closer to home like Bothell’s North Creek Forest, a 63-acre forestland that provides a green oasis to the residential neighborhoods that surround it.
Beyond the goals of preserving public land and providing recreational opportunities, there’s a economic argument to the fund’s survival. The projects it funds have helped support a $26.2 billion outdoor recreation industry in Washington state that sustains about 201,000 jobs, $7.6 billion in annual wages and $2.3 billion in local and state taxes each year, according to a 2015 report prepared for the state Recreation and Conservation Office. Nationally, the recreation industry generates $887 billion in consumer spending and supports 7.6 million jobs.
But three years ago it faced conservative opposition — much of it based on antipathy toward the American ideal of public lands — that threatened its continuation, actually expiring that September, just a couple weeks after celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was renewed that December, in the final push to pass a spending bill, but only for three years.
It again faces expiration if its authorization is not renewed and its funding restored before Sept. 30. The original legislation intended for the fund to be eligible for up to $910 million each year from the oil and gas royalties, reinvesting the nation’s resource wealth into its public lands, but it has rarely received that full amount; it was allocated $450 million for 2016, less than half of what it was due. Since its inception, more than $21 billion intended for the fund has been diverted elsewhere.
Legislation in the House and Senate that would reauthorize the fund and make its reauthorization permanent has seen little movement, despite having significant bipartisan support, including cosponsors from both parties.
At the start of August, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, the sponsor of the bill, was joined by six other Democratic co-sponsors and seven prominent Republican cosponsors, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, urging a vote and passage of the fund’s permanent reauthorization.
“Reauthorizing LWCF as a permanent program with secure funding before September 30th is essential to maintain the deposits into LWCF, ensure funding to meet imminent threats to our national parks and public lands, and provide critical public access and outdoor opportunities that our communities need,” the letter stated.
It says little encouraging about the climate in the nation’s capital that an act that has done so much good in the nation for so long, one with support that transcends party, can be shunted aside for ideological reasons.
Congress needs to hear from its constituents that they support the goals of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and want to see it reauthorized, fully funded as intended, and done so permanently.
Sept. 30 is just days away, but so, too, is Nov. 6.