Doctor's orders: Support land and water conservation

Doctor's orders: Support land and water conservation
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Humans are a part of nature. We can’t be healthy if the world around us isn’t healthy enough to sustain, nourish and protect us. And without a healthy population, we can’t achieve our full potential for generating strong economies, driving innovation and securing a safe future. 

Nature is at the heart of it all. Supporting nature and supporting ourselves is one and the same task, and it is a critical task.

Right now, Congress has a chance to make big gains in supporting nature by enacting a solution that already has broad bipartisan support: Fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

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This program was created over 50 years ago to help protect everything from national parks to local ballfields to historic sites. Although it can receive up to $900 million each year, it typically gets half of that or less. It varies every year, making its ability to meet conservation needs unpredictable. 

LWCF balances the use of one natural resource, offshore oil and gas production, by investing a portion of oil and gas revenues to protect other natural resources. At no cost to the American taxpayer, LWCF has helped protect national parks, preserve forests and wetlands, and expand outdoor recreation opportunities in every state. 

In my home state of Tennessee, LWCF has invested approximately $214 million to help protect places like Cherokee National Forest, Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

These are places where we hike, camp, fish and explore. They are important for outdoor recreation, creating jobs and safeguarding communities. Protecting them through LWCF helps ensure we can pass on our outdoor heritage to future generations — a pressing need while America loses a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds to development and other uses. 

I’m also focused on one of the more under-publicized benefits of conserving nature: our individual health and wellbeing. As a physician I’ve seen this personally, and research proves it.

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Places safeguarded by LWCF help provide safe, clean drinking water for our families and communities. Forests are the largest source of drinking water in the United States, supplying drinking water for 180 million Americans in 68,000 communities. When we conserve forests through programs like LWCF, we contribute to human health and often save communities money by avoiding the cost of water filtration plants.

LWCF also helps encourage time outdoors. That is not only a great way to get exercise, it's been shown to help reduce rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases, lower stress and decrease the frequency of depression and anxiety. Those health benefits also come with the economic benefit of driving the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy

All the economic, environmental and health benefits of conserving our lands and waters are clear, and they add up to broad and strong support. Earlier this year, lawmakers of both sides of the aisle in Congress voted by wide margins to make LWCF a permanent program

It proved, once again, that protecting lands and waters for future generations is an area where lawmakers can find common ground. 

Now that LWCF’s future is secure, the necessary next step is to make sure it truly receives its authorized $900 million every year. Congress has diverted more than half of the money owed to LWCF over its lifetime — $22 billion total — for other purposes. This is a broken promise to the American people, and we’re only hurting ourselves.

Luckily, we are seeing signs of progress. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to fully fund LWCF and make that funding permanent. Doing this would create greater certainty for this program, allowing it to better do the often years-long work necessary to conserve important places. 

Given the increasing strains on our planet, partisan division in our political discourse, and competing financial priorities, it isn’t always easy to support our lands and waters the way we need to. However, it is necessary, and when solutions are simple and widely supported, Congress needs to jump on the opportunity to make them happen.

It's time for Congress to work together to get LWCF the full, dedicated funding it deserves.

Bill Frist, M.D., a heart transplant surgeon and a former Republican Senate majority leader, is vice chair of the global Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy.