In Secretary Zinke’s reach, the key to unlocking federal public lands
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Although Theodore Roosevelt has commonly been associated with the axiom, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” our twenty-sixth president was not known to mince words or let a good audience go to waste in his energetic and outspoken advocacy for the cause of conservation. Secretary of the Interior Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeHUD official quits amid Interior Department watchdog controversy Overnight Energy: Outdoor retailer Patagonia makes first Senate endorsements | EPA withdraws Obama uranium milling rule | NASA chief sees 'no reason' to dismiss UN climate report Interior Department sued over withholding details on trophy permits, endangered species MORE, who professes a deep appreciation for T.R.’s legacy, should follow his lead during today’s appearance before the Senate Appropriations Interior Subcommittee. There, Zinke will be presented with an opportunity to build upon Roosevelt’s crowning achievement, our uniquely American public lands system, by positioning himself as a leading champion of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The federal government manages more than 640 million acres of public land belonging to the American people. These forests, deserts, mountains, seashores, and grasslands comprise some of our nation’s most cherished landscapes, produce an abundance of natural resources, and provide the backdrop for countless recreational pursuits. In this way, our public lands serve as the bedrock for an outdoor recreation industry that has grown into a veritable behemoth, constituting $887 billion in annual consumer spending and supporting 7.6 million jobs across the country. 

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Despite their importance to the American economy, identity, and culture, many millions of acres of public lands remain off-limits to the public because access is entirely blocked by private lands. Changing demographics are driving this problem. Private lands that were once open for anyone to cross to reach public lands are now often posted and patrolled. And as access is lost, so are local revenues from hunting, fishing and other recreation. Loss of access is now cited as one of, if not the, most important reasons that people stop hunting in America.

Expanding public access through strategic land acquisitions and easements can “unlock” these lands and make them available to all Americans. 

Fortunately, Secretary Zinke has recognized this challenge and, through Secretarial Orders 3356 and 3366, he has directed the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other public land agencies to identify inaccessible public lands where voluntary acquisitions, easements, or rights of way could open public lands to the American people. 

What’s more, Zinke has at his disposal a powerful tool for doing just that—the Land and Water Conservation Fund. For more than fifty years, the LWCF has served as the federal government’s most successful recreation and conservation program, investing nearly $16 billion across every state in the nation by directing a small portion of federal offshore oil and gas drilling fees for the acquisition of new hunting and fishing areas, expansion of public access, and improvements to fish and wildlife habitat, among other things.

Given that it costs the taxpayer nothing, the LWCF has historically enjoyed bipartisan support among the general public and on Capitol Hill. 

Nonetheless, Zinke finds his own directives on this issue in direct conflict with the devastating cuts outlined in the Trump administration’s 2019 budget. Despite the program’s record of success, the administration’s proposed LWCF funding for the Department of the Interior would see a shocking reduction from $154 million in 2018 to $8 million in 2019.

This kind of cut would make it difficult to imagine federal land management agencies securing much, if any, new access to public lands in the coming year. It would also make it much more difficult to achieve other department objectives, including protecting key big game migration corridors. But such an outcome is not yet set in stone. 

In his subcommittee appearance to review the 2019 budget today, LWCF will most certainly come up for discussion. Sportsmen and women around the country are hopeful that Secretary Zinke will put his time in front of the committee to good use and speak out about the need for robust LWCF funding, especially if he wants to follow through with the access and conservation priorities he has outlined for the Department of the Interior. 

We also hope that Zinke will call on Congress to permanently reauthorize this critical public lands program—something he did multiple times while serving in the House of Representatives—and to fully fund it.  

With the Land and Water Conservation Fund due to expire in September, Americans are looking for a leader to seize the initiative and secure the future of this vital and popular program. Theodore Roosevelt understood that there would be development and conservation on our public lands, as did Congress in 1965 when it authorized offshore oil and gas development and dedicated some of those revenues to conservation and access through LWCF. Secretary Zinke can reaffirm that model by standing up for the LWCF today.

Whit Fosburgh is a lifelong sportsman and the president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a nonprofit working to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.