A new push to save land in your back yard

Congress had the wisdom in 1965 to create the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which makes polluters pay for extracting America’s nonrenewable resources.

Today, we have the opportunity to improve the LWCF program so that more polluter dollars can be used to protect everything from our national parks to local playgrounds.

Conservation champions in the Senate recently introduced a new bill to make full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanent at its Congressionally-authorized level of $900 million annually. The Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2011 (S. 1265), introduced by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Max Baucus (D-MT), represents an exciting and historic opportunity to bring LWCF funding out of the contentious annual budget process and sustain the program as it was originally intended.

The LWCF Act was written in 1965 to operate as a direct transfer of money from a polluting activity (offshore drilling in the public’s waters) to preservation of natural resources elsewhere. It is a lifeline for our green spaces, watersheds and park facilities in this era of dwindling federal budgets.

In its 46 years of existence, LWCF has helped to protect land from the most beloved and iconic landscapes of our national parks down to neighborhood Little League fields.  It has helped to preserve irreplaceable parts of our history and culture, from battlefields and monuments to the wildlife refuges where hunting and fishing traditions are passed down through generations.

LWCF funding is also used to preserve working lands that are an equally treasured part of the American landscape. Conservation easements funded by LWCF allow ranchers and farmers to stay on the land and continue their stewardship of essential wildlife habitat and watersheds in the face of inexorable pressure to sell out to developers.

Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) also signed on to the legislation as original co-sponsors, as well as Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), who worked to include a provision setting aside 1.5% of the authorized amount  to improve access to public lands for hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists. These sportsmen and Americans nationwide love the outdoors. They love to  get out there and hike, paddle, watch birds, camp, and bond with their families. They also happen to contribute a total of $730 billion to our economy every year. What’s more, their activities support 1 out of every 20 jobs in the U.S. (6.5 million total, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation).

That makes land and water conservation a powerful investment in our country’s future — not just the beautiful places we cherish, but the communities where we live and work. The Department of the Interior has reported that for every dollar it spent on land acquisition last year, the American public got back more than twice that amount in economic activity.

The LWCF funding act represents our best chance at preserving that intent, and preserving the precious natural heritage of a growing, dynamic, ever-changing modern America.