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OPINION

End threat to Land and Water Conservation Fund

By SUSAN CONLEY | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: February 26, 2020

For 20 years my family has relished our nation’s public spaces, with vacations to Yosemite and Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Glacier national parks, and many more. On these trips I’ve watched my children fall in love with the outdoors, inspired by nature to explore and cherish the land and water of our great nation. Unfortunately, this nation’s mainstays of wonder and exploration, along with countless other public lands projects, are at risk. Why? Congress has continually failed to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a long-standing champion of public lands.

The LWCF is a bipartisan effort founded in the 1960s under a simple idea — take the royalties from oil and gas companies drilling offshore and reinvest them into conserving our nation’s most precious lands and waters. This means that the conservation and recreation benefits provided for all of us by LWCF funding costs taxpayers absolutely nothing. Over the past five decades the LWCF has funded and protected thousands of public parks, historic battlefields and urban community projects in all 50 states. Important chapters in our nation’s military history are preserved in part by LWCF contributions — places like Valley Forge National Historical Park, where Gen. George Washington’s troops wintered in 1777-78 displaying an enduring spirit of freedom as they sacrificed; and Gettysburg National Military Park, commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point in the Civil War. These places are endangered when our president proposed a 105% cut to LWCF funding for fiscal year 2020, and just recently for his fiscal 2021 budget he proposed to slash LWCF to 3% of the $900 million originally authorized by Congress.

That’s right, if it were up to President Donald Trump virtually none of LWCF’s intended funding would go to protect the natural treasures we all enjoy.

Thankfully, Congress thwarted White House intentions for 2020, LWCF was funded for $495 million, and it’s likely lawmakers will step in again this year. But similar congressional fixes each year mean that LWCF continues to be shortchanged, typically with 50% of the money diverted elsewhere. There is, however, legislation currently under consideration in the House and Senate to permanently fund LWCF at the full amount, and these bills are where we must now place our focus to ensure that LWCF funds will finally be used entirely for their intended purpose.

America’s great outdoors constitute our common heritage and protecting this nation’s special places means everything to me. As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, I have depended on a deep connection to the outdoors for my physical and mental healing. Navigating through the complications and struggles of injuries, I have found myself seeking out the beauty and peace of nature and public lands. I have hiked and biked on my favorite trails, kayaked on lakes early in the morning to watch the sunrise creep over the horizon or mid-afternoon to let the sun warm my soul. I spend time checking in with myself, letting the serenity of nature fill me with a calming joy. Like so many other veterans, public spaces, parks, and in particular water, have helped me heal and find peace.

It’s why I recently made a trip to Washington to talk to lawmakers about my concerns over the vulnerability of the LWCF program. I understand that legislators are faced with tough decisions every day, but this should not be one of them. In the spirit of a bipartisan Congress, fully funding the LWCF should be as simple as the concept under which it was founded. I was happy to hear that Rep. Betty McCollum, a long-time supporter of the LWCF and my member of Congress, felt the same way. Her office assured me that LWCF full funding was a priority.

But to truly safeguard the program and the public lands that depend on LWCF funding, we’ll need the support of more elected officials.

I’m confident Congress will fully and permanently fund the LWCF, the only question is how soon. Every day without guaranteed funding puts our cherished public lands in limbo. Our public lands are a lifeline that can’t wait.

Susan Conley served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969-1972. She resides and practices law in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., area.

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