Make parks fund permanent

If Congress were seeking a vote on a valuable program that would allow it to pat itself on the back and celebrate its ability to work in a bipartisan fashion, it could do no better than renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Ushered into existence 50 years ago by Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, the conservation fund has more than proved itself with annual success stories that have safeguarded natural areas and water resources, protected cultural heritage sites and provided recreation opportunities in all 50 states.

The program is supported not by taxpayers but through royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas. Actually, the $900 million in royalties collected each year on the fund’s behalf don’t always end up there; instead Congress has repeatedly siphoned off the money and reallocated it elsewhere. Nor has that $900 million ever been adjusted for inflation.

Still, since its inception, the program has allocated more than $637 million in Washington state to purchase property and easements for federal parks and other lands, matching grants for state and local parks and preservation of sustainable forests.

If reauthorized the fund will provide support for eight projects in Washington state next year, including the acquisition of conservation easements for about 165 acres of farmland under cultivation since the 1850s as part of the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve on Whidbey Island near Coupeville. Among seven other projects in Washington state it would fund are easements and property acquisition at Mount St. Helens, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Olympic National Park and Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

But Congress has less than 85 days to approve legislation that will reauthorize the program. With expected bipartisan support from at least 59 senators and leadership from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the legislation may still need a push from conservation-minded Republicans in the House, along the lines of that from 8th Congressional District Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., who spoke in favor of the bill recently and believes there is enough support in the House.

“There is a deep desire to continue these conservation efforts to protect land and work to make each state green, clean and pristine,” Reichert said during a joint conference call last month with 6th Congressional Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.

Beyond protecting the nation’s natural and historic sites, there are also economic arguments that favor the program. A 2010 study by the Trust for Public Land looked at a sample of 16 federal sites that received support from the conservation fund from 1998 to 2009. At the national parks, forests, monuments and other federally managed lands, the investment of $357 million to acquire 131,000 acres, returned $2 billion, $4 for every $1 spent, in “natural goods and services,” which include grazing on grasslands, watershed protection and flood prevention.

Considering the whole of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal lands, the Trust for Public Lands study estimated annual recreation spending by visitors totals nearly $27 billion and directly supports more than 456,000 jobs.

Included in the current legislation is a provision that would authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanently. After 50 years, the program has more than proved itself; it has become a necessary fixture in how we manage and support our public lands.

After a final reauthorization, Congress should resolve to honor its commitment to the fund by allocating to it all of the revenue it is due rather than skimming it to satisfy other responsibilities.

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