Public lands benefit everyone

Every week, I see at least one article in the news about the need for people to get outside and be active, and the need for more parks and access to parks and public lands. As a veteran and an advocate for veterans, I recognize this need acutely for people returning from military service. Getting outside helps us all — especially veterans — cope with stress and be healthy.

I also see articles about local communities and families in rural Washington struggling to make ends meet, rural economies that are taking longer to recover than urban economies, and towns once reliant on natural resources having a hard time transitioning to the new service-based economy.

These issues affect all of us, but I notice the particular impact on veterans: less access to the outdoors to help transition to or take breaks from civilian life, and fewer economic opportunities when veterans return home.

I know what can help both situations, and so do Washington state’s U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray: the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a 50-year-old program that reinvests a small portion of offshore oil and gas royalties into public lands and waters. From local parks and ballfields to state and national forests and parks, LWCF has invested more than a half-billion dollars in Washington state. I would wager that nearly every Washingtonian has visited a park or trail that has benefited from LWCF. It is one of our nation’s most important conservation tools.

But it is at risk. On Sept. 30, LWCF will expire, unless Congress acts. Not only that, but in its 50-year history, it has only once been fully funded. We can do better. LWCF funding is urgently needed this year to protect places across Washington, and if Congress doesn’t act we could lose these places forever:

South Puget Sound Coastal Forest: a project to conserve 24,000 acres of private working forestland and develop a regional trails system in Mason County.

Pacific Crest Trail: A project to relocate a portion of the trail out of a clear-cut ski area, improving the experience for hikers year-round.

Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve: Preservation of 165 acres of historic working farmland dating back to the 1850s at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island through conservation easements.

Olympic National Park: Protection of properties in the Lake Quinault area of the park to increase public access to the lake and curb pollution that is threatening water quality.

Washington’s U.S. senators are both fighting for LWCF as we speak.

Sen. Cantwell, who is ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, worked with its chairwoman, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to reach a breakthrough bipartisan agreement to permanently reauthorize LWCF. Vet Voice is very proud of their collaboration, and pleased that there were no damaging changes to the program as part of broader energy legislation.

Sen. Murray recently signed onto a letter with 21 colleagues in the Senate calling for permanent reauthorization and full funding of LWCF. In the letter, the senators encourage their colleagues to fund and renew LWCF in tandem with further action to fund or reauthorize the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, another important program that touches nearly every community across the country. While LWCF helps local economies capitalize on public lands via outdoor recreation, PILT helps offset the loss of tax revenue from public lands. These payments support essential government services such as education, first responders, transportation infrastructure, law enforcement and health care. Reauthorizing them together makes sense.

Reauthorizing LWCF will benefit local economies. LWCF provides funds in Washington for recreation access, hiking, biking, hunting, fishing and wildlife watching. It enhances access to national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands. In addition to safeguarding rivers and watersheds, LWCF is key to supporting local economies and jobs through increased outdoor recreation — a $21 billion dollar industry here in the evergreen state

Thank you, Sens. Cantwell and Murray for being strong, steadfast, visionary and effective leaders for Washington state and the nation. I wish there were more like you in Congress who could see the lasting benefits that come with smart policy and public lands.

Rick Hegdahl is a resident of Bellevue.

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