Guest column: Congress blows it on conservation fund
Congress hastily passed legislation to fund the government until December, but unfortunately, the immensely popular Land and Water Conservation Fund was not included in that legislative package. As a result, the program expired Sept. 30. This represents a significant loss for our country; the Conservation Fund pays for recreation and conservation projects in all 50 states at no cost to the American taxpayer. Congressional inaction is unacceptable and a disservice to the public.
The fund has paid for local park and recreation projects as well as secured protection for public lands since its inception in 1965. The fund is generated by royalties from offshore oil and gas extraction, so it has no impact on the annual federal budget. Instead, it balances out the impacts from oil and gas development by funding key conservation projects. It allocates money for both state and federal spending. State spending focuses on local parks and recreation projects, including pools, baseball diamonds, public parks, and running and biking trail systems. More than 40,000 community projects have received money from the fund.
Federal spending focuses on land acquisition, in particular private inholdings located within the boundaries of national parks and forests. These private land purchases from willing sellers make public lands whole and prevent development in the heart of some of our nation’s most iconic landscapes. Since 1965, the Conservation Fund has protected more than 2.2 million acres of public land in iconic landscapes such as Grand Teton, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks.
This is a sad moment for conservation and recreation across the country; a majority of Americans support the fund and it would have passed Congress had it undergone a simple up-or-down vote. Unlike many issues in our country, support for the fund is truly bipartisan. Along with Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, majorities in both houses of Congress support the fund. Opposition came from a small group of ideologues.
It’s heartening to see our two senators, along with Reps. Jared Polis, Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette, fight hard for this important program. It’s clear they understand the value of conserving land to our citizens and economies, which are so connected to public lands, recreation and wild places. Unfortunately, Rep. Scott Tipton did not vote in support of the Conservation Fund despite the millions of dollars worth of recreation and community projects the program has funded in his district. But the main culprit in preventing reauthorization of the fund is Rob Bishop, a Utah congressman and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. Bishop opposes the fund largely on the ideological grounds that he does not want the federal government to manage another acre of land.
The fund has never missed reauthorization or annual funding until now. The impacts locally, in Colorado and across the country are likely to be significant. In Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties, numerous projects have been funded by the Conservation Fund, including: the Rio Grande Trail ($380,000), the North Star Ranch Acquisition ($80,505), the Wingo Junction Trail Crossing ($150,000), the Aspen Trail System ($18,600), Iselin Park ($108,200), Roaring Fork River Access in Glenwood Springs ($20,000), Carbondale Municipal Pool ($105,500), the South Canyon Trail ($178,826) and the Sylvan Lake Recreation Trail ($22,000). Without the fund, future projects like these either will not happen or taxpayer dollars will have to be used to pay for access and recreation.
As a state, Colorado has received approximately $250 million from the Conservation Fund, which among other projects has purchased inholdings in the state’s four national parks that otherwise might have been developed for private homes (as occurred in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park). Had the fund been reauthorized, new conservation easements would have been created in the San Luis Valley and land would have been bought to reroute 52 miles of the Continental Divide trail off a highway along the Colorado-New Mexico border.
Nationally, more than 60 percent of our national parks have received Conservation Fund money to protect 2.2 million acres, but there are 1.6 million more that still need protection. The only Underground Railroad site at Gettysburg National Park, lands along the original Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and inholdings in Olympic and Hawaii Volcanoes national parks at risk of development all were slated for Conservation Fund money next year.
It’s a real shame that due to congressional inaction, national parks, local trails and river access now face the threat of private development. Rather than support baseball diamonds and national parks, a small ideological faction in Congress has chosen to end a wildly popular program that costs the American taxpayer nothing.
If you want to see the Conservation Fund brought back and revenue from offshore oil and gas development returned to communities across the country, write your representative and senators. Fortunately, Congress can reinstate the program at any time. Your representative just needs to hear from you.
Will Roush is conservation director at the Wilderness Workshop based in Carbondale. Additional research and writing for this column came from Justin Patrick. The Wilderness Workshop works to protect public lands and will be partnering with other state and national organizations to reinstate the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
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