In the 1960s, Congress struck a thoughtful bargain between the forces of resource use and of resource conservation. Some of the royalties paid for producing oil and gas from the nation's marine waters would be deposited into a fund for protecting open space and expanding outdoor recreation.
The bargain financed the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), one of those uncommon examples of federal programs that are both broadly popular and deliver tangible value to the taxpayers. The LWCF, the brainchild of a federal advisory commission dating to the Eisenhower administration, supports both federal land acquisition on a willing-seller basis and matching grants that states and localities can use to expand open space and recreation that suit their priorities, from neighborhood ball fields to backcountry wilderness trails.
Since the funds inception in 1965, it has paid for conserving more than 7.6 million acres of land for parks, forests, and wildlife. The LWCF grant program has made possible more than 41,000 local recreation projects.
And we all lived happily ever after, right? Unfortunately, no. Congress, with its knack for making lemons out of lemonade, has not lived up in full to its LWCF promise. Congress is authorized to appropriate up to $900 million each year from the fund to support the federal land acquisition and matching grant programs. Only once in the past 30 years, however, has Congress done so. Instead, the money has been siphoned away for sundry other purposes.
If there were ever a reminder of the need to balance resource development with conservation, it's there for all to see in the Gulf of Mexico. In return for bearing the environmental risks of offshore oil and gas production, we should invest some of the financial proceeds of that production in conservation. (The Mississippi Delta offers a lucrative investment opportunity.)
Legislation to strengthen oversight and management of offshore energy production should include an assurance that royalties paid for the privilege of producing energy from the nation's marine resources are invested in conservation to the fullest extent authorized by law, every year.
A frequently heard pushback is that the federal government cannot afford money for conservation when the deficit and debt are rising. Part of fiscal responsibility, however, is using dedicated funds for their intended purpose, not raiding them like a family tapping the kids' college fund to redo the kitchen.
Open space protection is not a frill to be indulged only in good economic times. Protected open space is an economic driver, stimulating tourism and outdoor recreation that contributes billions of dollars annually to local and regional economies. The availability of nearby open space is part of the equation that businesses consider when looking for desirable places to build or relocate their facilities.
Acquiring land from willing sellers would help dampen the escalating costs of putting out wildfires. As development sprawls into wildlands that are naturally prone to burning and are difficult to protect from fire, the budgets of federal land management agencies are being devoured by firefighting costs. Expanding LWCF acquisitions in the backcountry would create buffers that protect private property and lessen the need for costly, aggressive wildfire suppression.
Protecting wetlands and forests also is a low-cost way of protecting drinking water supplies. National forests alone provide clean water worth $4.3 billion per year.
In spite of the chronic underfunding, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has delivered lasting value to every American. It's time for Congress to uphold in full the bargain that it struck four decades ago.
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