Even if you hike, fish, hunt, ski, bike, or view wildlife in any of our iconic national parks, historic sites, and wildlife refuges, you might be unaware that millions of acres of these great places were protected with funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Created by Congress in 1965, the fund has been authorized since 1977 to receive as much as $900 million each year (from the billions of dollars the government receives from companies who drill for oil and gas off our coasts). Sadly, in recent years only a small fraction of the fund has been appropriated--in 2007 it was funded at a record-low $138 million--and countless opportunities have been lost.
When I last wrote about the fund in September, I was hopeful that both the president and Congress would restore full funding to the program. On February 1, the president released his budget with a modest increase for the fund, to $620 million. Although short of full funding, it is nonetheless a positive step forward, and the administration is committed to fully restoring the fund by 2014.
There are countless reasons to replenish the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund offers opportunities to balance conservation goals, supporting both access to outdoor recreation and the preservation of habitat for migrating species displaced by climate change. Active outdoor recreation alone supports millions of jobs, billions in economic activity, and injects money into local economies that benefit from tourist visits to nearby national parks and other natural treasures.
But another critical reason to boost federal funding now is to encourage badly needed state funding for conservation. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has a state grants program that offers matching support for conservation when federal and state conservation priorities are in sync. The state grants program has supported more than 41,000 projects in 98 percent of counties nationwide during the 40-year history of the program. These include infrastructure projects, such as fixing up local outdoor recreation facilities, which means jobs. When both governments have robust funding programs upon which to draw, great conservation happens, such as the recent 29-mile addition to Tennessee's Cumberland Trail or the protection of nearly 3,000 acres along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon in Texas.
Land conservation is consistently supported across the political divide, in both good and bad economic times. In 2009, voters passed 25 of the 40 land conservation measures on state and local ballots, creating more than $600 million in funding. In the long run, land conservation and its related economic benefits is an investment in a healthy economy, and the path out of this troubling recession must include a restored Land and Water Conservation Fund.
But legislators in some states, including California, Florida, Maine, and New York, are instead debating how to address massive budget shortfalls that might force them to freeze state conservation funding pots. Hopefully the administration's proposal will be incentive enough for some states to sustain their programs.