Editorials

Our Voice: Popular, no-tax conservation fund needs saving

A walker in on the move along Sacajawea Heritage Trail in Kennewick. This is one of the trails in Washington state that has received money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will expire in the fall if Congress does not re-authorize it.
A walker in on the move along Sacajawea Heritage Trail in Kennewick. This is one of the trails in Washington state that has received money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will expire in the fall if Congress does not re-authorize it. Tri-City Herald

The country’s premier conservation funding program only has a few months to live unless Congress takes action.

Federal lawmakers should have permanently re-authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund when it expired in 2015, but they bickered and instead put the program on life support for three years.

That extension will be up in September, and now the push is on to save one of the best ideas to ever come out of Washington, D.C.

Launched by Congress in 1964, the LWCF program protects open spaces and provides money for parks, trails and wildlife habitats without using tax dollars.

Instead, it uses money paid by energy companies, offshore drilling royalties and natural gas leases.

The idea is that if private companies use public, natural resources to make a profit, they should give some money back to the public for land improvements and conservation.

For 50 years, the system worked remarkably well.

Since its inception, the conservation fund has invested $637 million in grants in Washington, which helped preserve Mount Rainier, the Pacific Crest Trail, Olympic National Park, and the Columbia Gorge, according to the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Coalition.

In Benton and Franklin counties, money from the LWCF helped pay for the 23-mile Sacajawea Heritage Trail along the Columbia River, as well as Highland Park in Pasco, Vista Park in Kennewick and Burlington Park in Connell.

This week Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., launched a new campaign to save what she called America’s “most important and successful conservation and recreation program.”

Cantwell said the program is key to a “robust” outdoor recreation economy that in Washington alone, contributes over $26 billion in consumer spending and supports over 201,000 direct jobs.

Nationally, the fund generates over $887 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 7.6 million jobs.

Not only does the fund protect parks, trails and shorelines, it also provides access to recreation areas that include hunting and fishing and it helps preserve iconic landmarks throughout the country.

Cantwell and other senators introduced bipartisan legislation last year to permanently re-authorize and fully fund the LWCF, but it didn’t get very far.

Now, with a fall deadline looming, lawmakers need to get his legislation moving. Cantwell was smart to set the flares up now.

Opposition has come from conservative lawmakers who want to see the fund reformed. Many complain that it has strayed from its original purpose, but that’s because lawmakers have a history of raiding it.

The blame for that should be on legislators, not the LWCF itself.

In addition, there are some lawmakers who balk at the idea of making it a permanent program. We can understand that.

But a program that does so much good without using any tax money needs a long-term commitment from Congress.

Perhaps it could be re-authorized for another 50 years. That worked well enough the first time around.

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