During a 40-state road trip with my wife in 1995, we fell in love with our National Parks and other protected public lands. However, we were shocked to see less than a handful of Americans of Hispanic, Asian, African or Native American heritage enjoying the great American outdoors like we were. The stunning natural beauty, history, and culture preserved by our system of protected public lands exists for the enjoyment and education of all Americans, and my wife and I after that trip committed to ensuring that everyone, regardless of ethnic heritage, can discover the joys of connecting with our natural and cultural heritage.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a 50-year old tool that has been improving access to these tremendous places. Congress created the Fund in 1965 as an offset, a way to channel a small portion of the revenue derived from exploiting our natural resources into programs that benefit outdoor recreation and conservation.
The Fund is at a particularly precarious and vulnerable time this summer. As of today, only 100 days remain before it disappears unless action is taken. With its authorizing legislation expiring in September, it’s urgent that Congress hears from the public how vital it is to reauthorize the bill and acts to save the fund. Our elected officials can and must reauthorize and fully fund this program that has been ensuring access to our public lands and preserving our heritage for a half-century.
The threat to the LWCF is particularly ironic in light of the National Park Service’s upcoming Centennial (August 2016) around which the agency has built a campaign to engage new urban audiences. Because of the LWCF many minority and other communities have been able to enjoy the outdoors through creation of community parks or by opening up a new entrance point to a protected area and ensuring access. LWCF has been a key player in helping protect units of the Park System from Gettysburg to Appomattox, from the Appalachian Trail to the Grand Canyon. Since its inception the LWCF has advanced over 40,000 conservation projects, including in national parks, battlefields, baseball fields, and community green spaces.
If the Land and Water Conservation Fund is allowed to expire, the American public will lose one of our greatest tools to ensure the protection of our public lands and waters and the ability of everyone to get outside and enjoy them. This would be an unspeakable tragedy, as to a large extent they represent our shared history. Standing in these sacred spaces and learning the story of my forebears and what they accomplished gives me a great sense of satisfaction and pride as a black American. Similarly, every ethnic group can find their history on the public lands and connect with the legacy of their ancestors and what they contributed to the development of our country.
At this critical juncture for our environment when the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly visible in extensive droughts, storms and natural disasters, we desperately need the dollars derived from exploitation of our shared natural resources to offset our environmental problems. To kill this vital tool at the very moment that even the Pope is calling on humanity to make the environment a priority would show a reckless disregard for our obligation to country and community.
President Obama has been a champion in his leadership to ensure that America’s heritage and diversity is celebrated for generations to come. He has protected places that enshrine the legacy of Harriet Tubman and Cesar Chavez as national monuments, as well as the great civil rights story of the all-black Pullman Porters at the Pullman National Monument on the south side of Chicago. He has additionally been a great champion for LWCF, understanding the role it has played over the last half century in expanding access to the outdoors to all Americans. In his Presidential Proclamation naming June 2015 as “Great Outdoors Month,” the president wrote “For more than a half-century, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped to protect [America’s] iconic places and make it easier for families to spend time outside.”
We must call upon Congress to take up its responsibility to re-authorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Nothing less is acceptable.
Peterman is a conservationist of more than 20 years, an author and co-founder of the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau. www.delnsb.com.