Congress is finally funding and protecting public lands — but it's not enough

Congress is finally funding and protecting public lands — but it's not enough
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The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve sweeping public land legislation. The bill protects 1.3 million acres as wilderness and permanently prohibits mining on more than 370,000 acres around two national parks, including Yellowstone. The bill also permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a program that directs revenue from oil and gas royalties to fund conservation initiatives.

Passage was the result of a remarkable bipartisan effort by lawmakers who worked together over many years to carefully craft and then pass the bill into law. It is a feel-good moment, that reminds us all how Congress should operate — working together toward compromise for the common good. 

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While this important victory should be savored, and learned from, it is important that permanent authorization of LWCF (perhaps the bill’s signature achievement) is not viewed as sufficient to solving the conservation crisis that exists in this country.  In reality, reauthorization is only the first step in securing the program.  You see, while the program is no longer at risk of being eliminated, the bill does not make funding for it mandatory. As a result, it will be up to Congress this year, and every year moving forward, to determine whether LWCF is fully-funded or if the revenues are drained from the program for other uses.  

This is because while Congress said LWCF should receive as much as $900 billion in oil and gas royalties each year, appropriators — regardless of party — have made a practice of redirecting funds intended for the program to support other projects. As a result, according to a recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, less than half the funds eligible for conservation through LWCF have gone into its coffers.  

As business leaders, we recognize the awesome opportunity LWCF presents for the economic growth of our nation. It is equally important to stress to policymakers the tremendous uncertainty the practice of raiding the program has on that promise. Proximity to public lands and national monuments can be a major selling point for companies that want to recruit the best and brightest employees — a critical requirement for success.

Business leaders know that access to public lands are essential to the bottom line of their companies and the growth of our economy.  The passage of last week’s bill is tremendously exciting, but if Congress fails to follow-up by fully-funding LWCF, companies may start to view proximity to these areas as a risk, rather than a reward.  Therefore, we urge leaders in both chambers of Congress to seize this moment of almost unparalleled bipartisan support, at least in this modern era, and take the next step to ensure that this vitally important program is funding properly.

Full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund is critical to the expansion of recreational opportunities so important to the growth and culture of entrepreneurial, job-creating companies in our country. We urge congressional leaders, in the strongest possible terms, to work together to ensure that LWCF is fully funded this year and every year moving forward. 

Susan Mason and Paul Smith are venture capitalists and founding members of the Conservation for Economic Growth Coalition, formed in 2014. The coalition makes the case to policymakers in Washington that conservation of public lands is vital not only for recreation and environmental stewardship, but also provide tremendous opportunities for economic growth.