Columnist Johanna Neumann: The case for the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Our open spaces nourish us in many ways. On a slate-gray afternoon last month, I watched a solitary figure in camo and blaze-orange stride through the woods with a shotgun in his hand. As he passed the maple trees that flanked the golden meadows tumbling down to the Connecticut River, I thought about high school classmates who used to go hunting with their parents on school days — with an excused absence — and how meaningful that experience in the elements, with their parents, learning a craft, was for them.

From fall hunting to winter skiing and skating, our outdoor traditions shape our heritage. Early spring canoe trips on swollen streams and summer sandlot baseball games are part of what make life great.

Research suggests that we are all happier when we have access to nature and open spaces. One of the programs that has made open spaces, large and small, accessible to more Americans than any other is the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

A vote in the next Congress may decide whether this program lives on or becomes a relic of the past.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is our country’s most successful conservation program. It has protected land in every single county in every single state, including many places right here in the Pioneer Valley.

For example, Amherst’s Mill River Recreation Area — the park where my kids and their friends wade in the creek and play baseball — was acquired and improved thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The swamps and fields of the Brickyard Conservation Area that flank the bike path on the southeastern end of Amherst are preserved thanks in part to funding from the same source. Similarly, Look Park and Veterans Field in Northampton and Belchertown’s Central Recreation Complex all benefited from dollars received from the fund.

In total, more than $229 million of investments from this fund have gone to Massachusetts. Nationwide, 41,000 state and local park projects have received support. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund stems from a simple idea: If, as a nation, we were going to deplete one national resource — offshore oil and gas — then we should take some portion of the revenue earned from that depletion to enhance natural resources elsewhere, namely by conserving and improving parks, wildlife refuges, forests, open spaces, trails, wildlife habitat and other natural areas.

In 1964, representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle agreed on this basic idea. They worked together to pass the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. As a result of their collective action, every year for the past half century, $900 million has been deposited into a designated account in the U.S. Treasury to conserve irreplaceable lands and improve outdoor recreation.

But there was a catch.

Nothing prevented money in the designated Treasury account from being transferred to another account later. When there were budget shortfalls elsewhere, which was often, members of Congress raided the fund. In fact, this happened so often that the program was only fully funded once in its 54-year history. In total, raids on the fund diverted $20 billion that should have supported conservation and improved access to outdoor recreation opportunities to other purposes. 

In spite of these diversions, the Land and Water Conservation Fund still delivered real benefits. All Americans have benefited from expanded opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, from neighborhood ball fields to vacation destinations like Cape Cod National Seashore. These benefits could be even more fully realized if the program had full and dedicated funding.

The need for more conservation funding is apparent. Land is becoming more expensive, and currently many cities and towns face intense competition in their pursuit of state and federal grants to fund local conservation projects.

It shouldn’t be a huge political lift, either. Consistently, people from across the political spectrum all across the country support this program. A bipartisan poll conducted last month found that 81 percent of voters support continuing to deposit fees from offshore oil and gas drilling into the Land and Water Conservation Fund, including seven out of 10 Trump voters. 

Yet in the face of clear need and strong bipartisan support, this past September, Congress allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire entirely. Currently, none of the royalties from offshore drilling offset the harm through land conservation. At the time of writing this column, more than $191 million in conservation funds have been lost because of Congressional inaction, and the number climbs daily.

Come January, our members of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation should urge their colleagues to join them in advocating for permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full and dedicated funding.

It’s one simple and concrete way they can improve quality of life for everyone and help maintain the outdoor traditions that so many of us cherish.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She writes a monthly column on environmental and public interest issues and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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