Hiding in Plain Sight: America's Most Effective Conservation Program

On Monday, the White House released its latest budget proposal, a thick and heavy document with hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of numbers detailing how the Obama Administration intends to spend almost $4 trillion in the year which begins next October 1.

Budget day is part of the ritual of Washington D.C., with supporters of the White House praising the president's choices, and opponents criticizing them. That holds true regardless of which party controls the White House and Congress.

Buried in today's budget is a plan to spend $900 million next year for a program which has been one of the most effective in the nation since it was created 50 years ago. It is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, often referred to inside the Beltway by its acronym -- LWCF. And we strongly applaud the president's recommendation and will be working to secure congressional approval.

What gets lost in the political quotes and partisan talking points is that LWCF has protected some of America's most special places, lands and parks enjoyed by generations of American families in all 50 states. More than 42,000 parks across the country, a collection of national parks, forests, trails, beaches, wildlife refuges, and state and local parks, have been protected due to LWCF.

And it doesn't even come from all of us who pay taxes. The money comes from royalties paid by oil companies to lease offshore drilling sites.

It is limited to $900 million a year, which isn't even a rounding error in the huge federal budget and is only a small portion of annual revenues from drilling. But Congress hardly even approves even that small amount, and raids the fund for other purposes. For example, in the current budget year, Congress only approved $306 million for LWCF. In the past half-century, $19 billion has been diverted away from conservation and access to parks.

This is a critical year for the program, which expires at the end of September, when the current budget year ends.

Congress needs to reauthorize the program now, and that should be a simple step, particularly at a time when politicians keep talking about the need for "bipartisan solutions." In fact, LWCF is a perfect example of a plan which is supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

We saw that support last week, when an amendment to reauthorize LWCF was proposed in connection with Senate action on the controversial Keystone pipeline bill. The LWCF amendment had co-sponsors from both parties and, in fact, had more co-sponsors than any of the more than 40 amendments offered during the debate. When the roll was finally called on the LWCF amendment, 59 senators, including 14 Republicans and 45 Democrats, voted in favor. It was heartening to see the widespread support in both parties for a program which not only provides parks but also jobs in local communities.

For example, our outdoor industry is worth $646 billion a year, and employs 6.1 million Americans, and many of those visitors are using land protected under the fund. In our cities, LWCF has helped protect parks in dozens of communities from Denver, to New York, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, and Hartford, Conn., among others.

The support from both parties for LWCF isn't surprising, given the strong support we've seen from both "red" and "blue" voters for more than 20 years. They have been willing to tax themselves to pay to preserve the local places which are important to them. For example, last November, voters approved a record $13 billion for local conservation.

While more than half of the 100-member Senate voted in favor of LWCF, even that wasn't enough to keep it alive in a highly partisan Congress. But over the next few months, there will be other more appropriate opportunities for Congress to stand up and keep alive a program which has helped almost all of us. We hope they will listen to the public.