Bipartisan support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund deserves applause
Our country is home to some of the most magnificent natural treasures found anywhere in the world. From the Everglades in Florida to Glacier National Park in Montana to the Kenai Fjords in Alaska, the diversity and richness of our nation’s landscape should never be taken for granted. Fortunately, this appears to be one area of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill, and our elected leaders should be applauded for their commitment to preserving our natural wonders.
This was demonstrated most recently when the Senate passed The Great American Outdoors Act in mid-June, legislation that will fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). While the LWCF has garnered support from both sides of the aisle for some time, this marks just the second time that it will be fully funded. And in an age where bipartisan agreement on standalone legislation is uncommon, the 73-25 vote in favor of this bill shows just how strong support for this measure is.
An examination of what the LWCF is and what it does reveal is why support for it is so broad. First created by Congress in 1964, the intent of the program is to “to safeguard our natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.” Rather than using taxpayer money to achieve this, LWCF draws the majority of its funding from oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf.
The benefits of this program are far reaching. In fact, LWCF supports conservation efforts in 98 percent of U.S. counties while conserving more than 5 million acres of land and supporting 41,000 state and local park projects. Think of one of our national treasures – from the Appalachian Trail to the Grand Canyon – and LWCF has probably played a role in preserving them for future generations.
And it’s not just the environment that benefits from this program, there are economic benefits as well. In my home state of Georgia, the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation generates $27.3 billion in annual spending across the state. In turn, this supports 238,000 jobs across Georgia. As our nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and people look to enjoy the great outdoors in a social distant way, funding this program can help create jobs and support maintenance of popular destinations. It’s perfectly timed to the moment.
The legislation that passed the Senate is notable in another way as well. For most of the LWCF’s history it has been funded through the annual appropriations process, which resulted in many important projects being scrapped as the program was cut back to fund other priorities. By permanently funding the LWCF at the $900 million level, Congress will create greater certainty for conservation efforts and enable state and local officials to better plan future projects.
This bill will now head to the House where it will also likely be met with bipartisan support. A final vote is expected by the end of July.
It is important to note, however, that we cannot rely on federal government spending to meet all of our conservation needs. The overwhelming majority of land in the United States is owned by private citizens. Congress has recognized the need for private conservation by creating incentives for landowners to place conservation easements on their property. These incentives should be strengthened and improved moving forward so that more Americans can participate in land conservation, not just the wealthiest few.
When it comes to conserving our precious natural resources, we should be employing an “all of the above” approach. Fully funding the LWCF is a step in the right direction. All who value open spaces, outdoor recreation and conservation of our natural landscapes should feel proud that our elected leaders in Washington are prioritizing support for these causes and ensure that future generations are able to enjoy the great outdoors just as we have.
Robert Ramsay is the executive director of the Partnership for Conservation.
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