Renew the conservation fund

Rarely does Congress pass a law that is applauded by Republicans and Democrats alike, benefits every American and doesn’t require the expenditure of a single dime of tax revenue. Today, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the reauthorization of one landmark law that fits all three of these criteria: the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.

The act, signed into law a half-century ago by President Lyndon Johnson, takes a small portion of the money collected from oil and gas development in federal offshore waters and invests it into conservation and recreation projects for the benefit of all Americans. The act gives back part of what we take from nature by providing green space and outdoor recreation opportunities in communities across the country.

For 50 years, the law has been regarded as one of the most successful programs for recreation and conservation investments in our history. In partnership with local communities, the fund has enabled the construction of more than 40,000 city parks, hiking and biking trails, boat ramps, access to thousands of acres of fishing and hunting areas, and the protection of important wildlife habitats.

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If you rode your bike on a trail near your house or watched your child play a Little League game recently, or enjoyed the scenic beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, there is a good chance that the Land and Water Conservation Fund helped make it possible.

Just yesterday, the Department of the Interior announced $3 million in investments from the fund that will enable eight cities to construct or enhance parks in underserved neighborhoods. These improvements range from the renovation of a degraded urban storm water system into a community asset in Mobile, Ala., to the conservation of 4.5 acres of prairie in Denver that will protect water quality, provide wildlife habitat and offer the public hikes, gardens and educational programs.

Besides enhancing the neighborhoods we live in, these funds also help protect working forests that fuel our rural communities and provide hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities. Implemented in partnership with states, the Forest Legacy Program enriches efforts to protect privately owned forest lands in order to meet state goals to protect air and water quality, protect important fish and wildlife habitats, and sustain an important source of timber.

By effectively leveraging taxpayer dollars through a cost-share requirement in the Forest Legacy Program, $669 million has secured land two times the size of Delaware, valued at more than $15 billion.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund will expire in September, unless Congress votes to reauthorize it. If it is not reauthorized, local communities could be left without a critical source of funding for outdoor recreation, and hundreds of projects waiting in the pipeline for grants might never come to fruition.

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More is needed than reauthorization, however. President Obama has asked this Congress to permanently guarantee that the full $900 million in oil and gas revenue called for under the law actually goes to support these projects, as originally intended when it was enacted.

Only once in the fund’s history has Congress provided full funding. Each budget cycle, anglers, hunters, ball players, outdoor enthusiasts and city dwellers alike have all been shorted, as funds are siphoned off for other purposes.

The importance of this funding cannot be overstated. We live in an era when people — especially young people — are increasingly disconnected from the great outdoors. If we are going to raise a new generation with healthy lifestyles and a connection to nature, we must provide more opportunities for outdoor recreation and more green spaces, particularly in urban areas.

Some might argue that investing in recreation and conservation is a luxury we can’t afford. In reality, we can’t afford not to: Outdoor recreation is a huge economic engine that contributes an estimated $646 billion in consumer spending — twice the amount consumers spend on household utilities, gasoline and other fuels or on pharmaceuticals — and supports 6.1 million jobs — nearly three times as many jobs as the oil and gas industry and more than the finance and insurance sectors.

A half-century ago, Congress made a historic commitment to the American people. As a result, we have irreplaceable natural, historic and recreational outdoor places that otherwise might not exist or might have been lost.

It is time for today’s Congress to fulfill this commitment by reauthorizing and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Jewell is the 51st U.S. secretary of the Interior, serving since 2013. Vilsack is the 30th U.S. secretary of Agriculture, serving since 2009.