Raids on premier, tax-free conservation fund must stop

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell calls for full funding of Land Water Conservation Fund

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, says fully funding the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) helps ensure funding for recreation and preservation projects throughout Washington state.
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U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, says fully funding the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) helps ensure funding for recreation and preservation projects throughout Washington state.

Saving the country’s foremost conservation program doesn’t mean much unless it also gets dedicated funding. Otherwise, Congress will continue to raid it whenever it wants – and that’s a practice that has to stop.

After years of doubt, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was permanently reauthorized last March when President Donald Trump signed a massive public lands bill.

The victory became less meaningful, however, when lawmakers realized later that while Trump approved resurrecting the program on paper, his budget plan for 2020 cut LWCF funding to zero.

That’s right – zero, not a dime. Approving a program without providing the money for it makes no sense.

So the push is on now to guarantee $900 million in funding for the LWCF each year so our public lands can be restored, protected and enjoyed.

It is the logical next step to preserving one of the most ingenious plans to ever come out of Washington, D.C.

The LWCF program was created by former Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and approved by Congress in 1964. It takes money from offshore drilling royalties and natural gas leases and directs it back to support the environment.

The idea is that companies who use natural resources to make a profit should give something back to the public for conservation. It is a terrific source of tax-free money that is supposed to help preserve our lands, streams, shorelines, parks and historic sites.

But it continually gets misused by federal lawmakers.

According to the Land & Water Conservation Fund Coalition, over the 54 years of the program, $22 billion has been diverted from the LWCF account for other, unknown purposes. That means everything from community playgrounds to national parks have missed out because billions of dollars have been misspent.

In addition, the LWCF fund expired in 2015 after 50 years of success. It should have been reauthorized before its expiration date, but instead it was kept alive on a temporary basis until it was allowed to die last September.

Fortunately, it came back to life this spring with the permanent reauthorization legislation. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the former ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was instrumental in getting it through.

Now Cantwell is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who want to make funding for the conservation program mandatory and ensure it receives the full $900 million it is supposed to get each year.

She called the LWCF the “pre-eminent tool to increase access to our nation’s beloved public lands.” She also said that “we need to build on our recent success to permanently extend the program by making sure the funding is mandatory.”

Since its creation, the LWCF has supported more than 600 projects in Washington state, including the McNary National Wildlife Refuge, Olympic National Park, Lake Chelan, Columbia River Gorge, Yakima River Canyon, Mount Rainier and many, many other state treasures.

Our lands, parks, lakes, rivers and forests have been neglected for decades, which goes against the protective measures Congress developed over 50 years ago when it launched the LWCF. Now there is bipartisan support to get back to using the fund for its original purpose.

Legislation in the U.S. House that would provide $900 annually to the LWCF already has advanced. The companion legislation in the U.S. Senate must move on as well.

It is time the LWCF be used as intended – to protect our natural resources and increase access to our public lands – and not as a side account lawmakers can tap into when they feel like it.