Voters give Congress a mandate … for conservation

Middle Fork of the Williams River in Cranberry Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Photo by Duane Bowker.

This past Tuesday’s election delivered a message that is reverberating throughout the halls of Congress: Voters went to the polls and sent the message that partisanship and legislative gridlock are no way to manage the nation’s business. By delivering a divided Congress for the first time in 10 years, voters are not endorsing one party or the other — they are instead crying out for cooperation, compromise and a little common sense.

For our critical work to protect public lands and the environment, this provides a tremendous opportunity — an opportunity that voters overwhelmingly support. As Americans cast ballots based on a sagging economy, joblessness, and budget deficits, they also voted to voluntarily tax themselves in support of land conservation and open space for local communities.

Statewide ballot initiatives supporting conservation measures were successful in Maine, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Iowa, while scores of other local and municipal bond and tax measures passed as well. During an election in which many people voted principally out of economic frustration, 80 percent of nationwide conservation and open space ballot initiatives passed. How much further must we look for an issue that can bring Republicans and Democrats together?

In Maine, voters supported a bond measure for $9.75 million to continue the Land for Maine’s Future program, which protects lands for their recreational and ecological values. Mainers understand the need for working farms and forests, tourism, and the increased quality of life that comes from the clean air they breathe and the clear water they drink. These hard earned dollars from the pockets of fishermen in Belfast and carpenters in Bangor will be matched by federal and state funds in a partnership that will spur economic growth while protecting Maine’s enduring natural beauty.

In Oregon, citizens voted to continue the state’s only dedicated source of funding to protect clean water, support jobs, and make state and local parks safer and more accessible using a portion of the state’s lottery funds. The measure that created this program in 1998 was set to expire in 2014, and its passage ensures nearly $171 million projected dollars for conservation in 2011-13. Oregonians understand the need for reliable, long-term funding of parks and natural resources as key to economic vitality. This major investment will protect clean water and wildlife habitat, aid in restoration, and help create jobs across the state.

As states across the nation make these important choices, the U.S. Congress returns next week for a final legislative session before the end of year with an opportunity to leverage that local investment. The Senate has pending legislation to provide full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) — the premier program to protect lands, open space and recreational opportunities nationwide. LWCF has only been fully funded once in its 45 year existence and the Senate could finally make this critical program permanent.

Voters have spoken that even when times are tough for their families, they will make sacrifices to protect the natural places most important to them. What better way for Congress and the President to start off a new era of cooperation than by heeding that mandate.

photo: Middle Fork of the Williams River in Cranberry Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Photo by Duane Bowker.