On September 3, 1964 -- exactly 50 years ago -- President Lyndon B. Johnson signed two bills into law: The Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). From the White House Rose Garden he praised these conservation measures, declaring them "in the highest tradition of our heritage as conservators as well as users of America's bountiful natural endowments."
At their core, both the Wilderness Act and the LWCF are congressional tools for conserving our natural and cultural heritage. In particular, the Wilderness Act preserves the untouched nature of notably pristine federal lands. Congress is tasked with designating these lands as wilderness areas where commercial activities -- motorized access, roads, human infrastructure -- are prohibited. As for the LWCF, it facilitates outdoor recreation by helping fund everything from expanding national parks like Rocky Mountain National Park to preserving Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg to building urban parks like Los Angeles' MacArthur Park.
It's unlikely that the 88th Congress that enacted these laws could have foreseen their particular trajectory over the subsequent 50 years -- that future congresses would have the wisdom to add to our wilderness areas and expand them from 9 million acres to 110 million acres, or that the LWCF would be responsible for more than 40,000 local projects across all 50 states. But President Johnson anticipated the value that would come from these measures, suggesting the leadership seen in the 88th Congress' passing of these bills would "provide for the next decade and not merely the next day." Of course now they've provided for five decades.
Which is why, due to intransigence from the anti-conservation House Republican leadership, Congress' contemporary treatment of both initiatives is alarming. Every Congress since 1966 has designated new federal lands to the wilderness system -- every Congress except the 112th Congress (2011-12), which brought the Tea Party to Washington and actually reduced the acreage of the wilderness system. The current, 113th Congress has a feeble record too, having designated only one of more than 30 proposed wilderness areas sponsored by members from both parties while also having the dishonor of closing our national parks during the October 2013 government shutdown. Perhaps not surprisingly, the LWCF is also suffering at the hands of House Republican leaders. Of the $900 million collected from oil and gas companies last year that's authorized for LWCF, Congress appropriated a mere $234 million, leaving an unused balance of more than $650 million in the U.S. Treasury to be spent on things other than conservation. Furthermore, the LWCF authorization is set to expire in September of 2015. If the inaction of Congress continues and the fund isn't reauthorized, the LWCF could simply disappear.
The House Republican leaders pushing these anti-conservation policies are wildly out of step with public opinion. No one can forget the public outrage that accompanied the closure last year of our national parks, which have been called America's best idea. What's more, 85 percent of voters believe Congress should honor its commitment to fully utilize the LWCF, and 72 percent of the electorate agrees that "even with federal budget problems, funding to safeguard land, air and water should not be cut."
Thankfully, President Obama has heard the American people. While he can't step in and legislate new wilderness areas or re-authorize the LWCF, his administration is doing what it can -- in spite of congressional gridlock -- to continue America's long and proud conservation legacy. The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows the President to protect important federal land as a national monument.
President Obama has begun to embrace this tool and has designated eleven national monuments and is considering plans to protect California's San Gabriel Mountains. Last week, a public discussion held by the U.S. Forest Service reaffirmed local public support for strengthening protections for the San Gabriel Mountains, which consist of more than 500,000 acres of forests and summits that attract bighorn sheep and mountain lions, and lie just outside of Los Angeles, a notoriously park-poor city. The administration has also held public meetings to discuss proposals to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which could make it the largest network of marine-protected areas anywhere on the planet, as well as create Chicago's first national park unit at the Pullman neighborhood, which would honor the 19th century industrial complex's contribution to African-American, labor and railroad histories. So, while Congress fails to designate new wilderness areas, the President is actively conserving special places by creating new national monuments that reflect local community input and support. Additionally, the Obama administration's Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, has been crisscrossing the country highlighting local projects funded by the LWCF and gathering public support for full funding and reauthorization of America's premier conservation program, which the administration has regularly called for in its proposed budgets.
In the end, we're still faced with a problem: the President can't do it all. He can't re-authorize the LWCF nor can he appropriate it the money it deserves. We need Congress to act on LWCF and pass the dozens of currently-stalled conservation bills. It's time for House Republican leaders to stop blocking these proposals and once again take up America's conservation legacy.
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