Americans who have hiked the Appalachian Trail or visited the Grand Canyon may not have heard of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). But for half a century, this remarkable fund has helped to protect these natural treasures and thousands of others, at no cost to taxpayers. But now the fund itself is under attack. In the Senate, there is bipartisan support for legislation to permanently reauthorize the fund. But in the House, a powerful committee chairman is demanding that funding from LWCF be diverted to support offshore drilling for oil and gas.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed into law in 1964, is a visionary idea that has helped to preserve hundreds of America's most iconic national parks and historic places -- from Zion National Park to Mount Vernon to the Gettysburg battlefield. It has paid for almost two thirds of the Appalachian Trail, and has helped to fund more than 40,000 local recreation projects, including playgrounds, walking trails, and athletic fields in communities in all 50 states.
The fund provides critical support to the outdoor recreation industry that generates $646 billion annually in economic activity and supports more than six million jobs. Yet this enormously successful initiative does not cost taxpayers even one dime. It's funding comes from a small portion of federal proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the publicly owned Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). In short, some revenues from the depletion of one natural resource are used to conserve a different natural resource, including some of our most beautiful places and landscapes.
Not surprisingly, the fund is enormously popular with the American public. In a recent poll, 85 percent of voters (93 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Republicans) supported federal investments in the fund. For half a century, the fund has enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress.
Today, however, the future of this bipartisan success story is in jeopardy. Senators reached a bipartisan compromise to continue the program (53 Senators signed a letter in support). But a handful of Republicans have repeatedly blocked a vote on our legislation. Like the highway bill and so many other programs that used to be routinely reauthorized on a bipartisan basis, LWCF has become a target for ideological attack. With reauthorization blocked by leaders in both House and Senate, the fund expired on Sept. 30.
Others are proposing not to kill the fund, but to raid it. In early November, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the Natural Resources Committee in the House, proposed legislation to "reform" LWCF by diverting at least 20 percent of its annual budget to supporting offshore oil and gas drilling. In other words, instead of money flowing to the conservation fund to offset the depletion of public resources on the Outer Continental Shelf, money would be diverted from the conservation fund to encourage offshore drilling.
Sadly, LWCF is a victim to yet another manufactured crisis in Washington. A small partisan minority has put the fund's future in jeopardy, threatening to terminate one of the great bipartisan achievements of the last half century.
This misguided attack on LWCF must not be allowed to prevail. It's time for the great majority in Congress -- Democratic and Republican members alike -- to come together on a bipartisan basis to save the fund. Between now and Dec. 11, an omnibus appropriations bill will be hammered out in Congress. That legislation must include permanent reauthorization and full funding for America's premier conservation fund. And it must not allow the fund's very limited resources to be handed over to the oil and gas industry.