Not the time to rest. Let’s maximize new era of conservation funding

Cherokee Park Roadless Area in Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado. Photo by Eric Swanson.

After years of suffering through a presidential administration that starved federal conservation programs of adequate funding, such programs are finally getting the needed boost they deserve.

In October, Congress gave a significant funding increase to the Interior Department, which is responsible for most U.S. land conservation and management. The $4.6 billion funding increase will go towards a series of important projects and initiatives long pushed for by The Wilderness Society and the rest of the conservation community.

This move was consistent with the views of voters across the country who have approved state and local conservation funding measures. On Election Day this past November, voters in states throughout the nation approved 24 of 39 conservation measures on the ballot. Perhaps the most dramatic was in New Jersey, where voters simultaneously elected a new conservative governor and approved a $400 million bond initiative for parks, open space and historic preservation.

The Wilderness Society is thrilled that after eight years of President Bush’s shoestring Interior budgets, the federal government is stepping up to ensure that our wild places, water supply, and natural scenery are protected for future generations of Americans.

But while things are looking up for conservation programs around the country, this is not the time to rest. The next big priority for The Wilderness Society and the rest of the conservation community is to strengthen something called the Land and Water Conservation Fund. LWCF takes money collected from oil and gas leases — not taxpayers — and uses it to buy and protect land. That fund, though, is only getting one-third the amount of funding it’s supposed to receive each year. To address this, Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., have introduced a bill to fund LWCF at $900 million — the level allowed by the original 1965 legislation.

The Congressional budget increase for conservation programs did include $306 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but this is still only one-third of what should be allotted.

Now is the time for people who want to protect more of our lands to contact their members of the House and Senate and tell them that full funding for the LWCF should be a priority in the current legislative session.

The rest of the $4.6 billion Congressional funding increase for 2010 includes money for wildfire suppression, climate change research, the National Wildlife Refuge System, national parks, and protection of streams and water systems.

Perhaps the most immediately helpful provision in the bill is the FLAME Act, which will help the federal government deal with the challenges caused by skyrocketing wildfire management costs. The act creates a new source of funding for agencies to use for suppression so that they don’t have to take money away from other vital programs and services to put the fires out.

The bill also provides:

  • $90 million for the Legacy Road and Trail Remediation Program, a program that protects watersheds and improves recreational opportunities by decommissioning obsolete roads and maintaining trails.
  • $75 million for the National Landscape Conservation System, which protects some of the most spectacular scenery managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
  • $306 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that takes revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling to support the conservation of America's lands and waters.
  • $77 million for the Forest Legacy Program, which will preserve working forests by conserving open space, wildlife habitat and clean water while allowing for sustainable timber harvesting.
  • $385 million for climate change research and what can be done to help the country respond to climate change.

photo: Cherokee Park Roadless Area in Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado. Photo by Eric Swanson.