Keep our public lands public

For nearly 50 years, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund has invested nearly $17 billion nationwide and $500 million in Washington in state and federal land conservation projects and matching grants for state and local parks, trails, recreational facilities and to support working forests and family farms.

Among the projects that the fund could aid in Washington state next year would be preservation of 165 acres of historic farmland at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island through the use of conservation easements. Ebey’s Landing, a National Historical Reserve, has protected public land with stunning vistas and farmland that has been in working production since the 1850s. (For more about Ebey’s Landing, see Herald Writer Gale Fiege’s story on Whidbey Island and Ebey’s Landing in the April 18 Herald.)

No taxpayer has ever paid a dime into this fund. Each year the conservation fund receives about $900 million from a portion of the fees collected from offshore oil-drilling operations, but over the years some of that funding has been diverted by Congress for uses other than the act’s language intended.

That loss of funding should be corrected, but the fund itself faces a questionable future, judging by recent symbolic votes in Congress.

In late March, the U.S. Senate voted 51-49 on an amendment to a nonbinding budget resolution that would allow for the transfer to the states of federal public lands, with the exception of national parks and monuments. Those public lands, including national forests, wildlife refuges, historical areas and wilderness areas, could then be auctioned off by each state as its current legislature and governor saw fit. It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which a state, strapped for cash, would seek to sell off lands once owned by all Americans.

The budget amendment isn’t likely to become law anytime soon, but it followed a similar vote, again nonbinding, in the House, 228-119, to turn over public lands to state and local governments to allow “increased resource production.” In both votes Republicans heavily carried the majorities.

But in seeking to turn over public lands to private companies, the votes in the House and Senate ignore the economic benefit, not to mention the lands’ intrinsic value, that national forests and public lands already provide to the nation through timber and other resource production and recreation.

Legislation has been proposed in the House to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would otherwise expire at the end of September. The House bill incorporates language in legislation sponsored by Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell that was approved by a Senate majority in January.

What’s significant is that among the House bill’s original co-sponsors is 8th District Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, who in signing onto the legislation said the conservation fund has “played a pivotal role in preserving America’s national treasures for future generations.

“In Washington alone, it has helped to conserve the natural beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and the Columbia River Gorge.”

We hope Rep. Reichert can persuade fellow Republicans to recognize the value that federally managed public lands already hold and secure the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

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