We are facing a conservation crisis – it's time to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund
© Getty Images

A recent groundbreaking study of the human footprint in the lower 48 states found that every 30 seconds the United States loses a football field worth of natural area to development such as roads, pipelines, and houses, a trend that could mean the collective disappearance of wild places the size of South Dakota by 2050. Globally, a recent scientific report found that humans have “significantly altered” three-fourths of the planet’s lands and two-thirds of its marine environments, one environmental stressor that could lead to the extinction of approximately 1 million plant and animal species.

To confront this conservation crisis, policymakers must do far more to preserve nature and share its benefits equitably with all communities in this country. Congress can get started right now by providing full, permanent, and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The loss of natural areas and biodiversity poses a direct threat to people. Our lands and waters—which filter drinking water, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and buffer us from extreme weather such as floods and wildfires—underpin our economies, food security and health.

While a number of strategies should be undertaken to address the decline of natural systems—including reducing pollution and taking other steps to fight climate change—one of the most effective ways is simply to preserve more land and water in their natural state. That is why a growing number of scientists are recommending that countries around the world commit to preserving 30 percent of their lands and oceans by 2030, a goal we urge U.S. policymakers to take up in our country. Indeed, a number of presidential candidates--including former Vice President Biden; Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.),and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.); and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro -- have already made this commitment.

How we achieve the preservation of 30 percent of America’s lands and waters in a natural state by 2030 is as important as setting this goal. The United States has a painful legacy of racism and exclusion toward communities of color and indigenous communities when it comes to natural resource policy, including land theft and inequitable access to green spaces in and near population centers. We must ensure that indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities are actively consulted and their needs fully accounted for in our nation’s conservation efforts. While we conserve and respect the lands we should simultaneously respect the communities that have traditionally protected the lands.

While reaching a goal of preserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters in a natural state by 2030 and creating more community green spaces will require a suite of bold policies, Congress can get started today by fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. LWCF is our nation’s most important conservation and recreation program, which for more than 50 years has protected areas within and near national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges from being sold off to the highest bidder; preserved wildlife habitat; and funded ballfields and playgrounds for all communities to easily access the outdoors. With conservation projects in all 50 states and nearly every county in the nation, it’s not surprising that LWCF has such strong public support, which propelled Congress to vote in an overwhelming and bipartisan fashion to permanently reauthorize the program earlier this year. That ensures that LWCF will be around for the long haul—no small accomplishment. But it did not, unfortunately, guarantee a dime of funding for LWCF.

By law, LWCF is supposed to receive $900 million per year from energy revenues, but Congress rarely appropriates the full amount. In fact, over the years $22 billion that was intended to go to LWCF projects has been diverted and spent on non-conservation purposes. Today LWCF is facing an even bigger threat under the Trump administration, which proposed in its latest budget not only to zero out the program but also to rescind previous funding. The need to guarantee LWCF’s funding has never been more urgent. That is why Congress should pass bipartisan legislation—H.R. 3195 and S. 1081—that would provide LWCF with full, permanent, and dedicated funding, ensuring that revenues collected for LWCF actually go to conservation projects.

It’s going to require an array of ambitious policies to address the conservation crisis—and we urge policymakers to formulate bold plans to tackle this serious challenge. As Congress works on government funding this fall, it has a golden opportunity to take important action today by providing LWCF with full, permanent, and dedicated funding. That would amount to a significant down payment on addressing the deterioration of nature that threatens our communities and wildlife.

Gene Karpinski is president of the League of Conservation Voters.