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Congress lets Land and Water Conservation Fund expire; it has protected Washington places low and high

By Joel Connelly
Seattle P.I.
“The failure to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a disappointment for every family and business in Washington who have come to rely on the clean water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat and quality of life that this 50-year-old conservation program affords.”

 

The U.S. House of Representatives has put it all together this year, finding ways to hurt nature conservation as well as the country’s export industries.

It allowed the U.S. Export-Import Bank to expire last summer, leaving hundreds of large and small businesses without export guarantees.  And this week, it has failed to reauthorize the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has used a small chunk of federal oil leasing revenues to support land conservation projects.

“LWCF is our nation’s premier program to help local communities protect the places they love:  It has conserved iconic landscapes in every state and is responsible for more than 40,000 state and local outdoor recreation projects such as playgrounds, parks, refuges and baseball fields,” said a letter to House Republican leadership signed by 130 Democratic House members.

A separate letter led by Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., and signed by House Republicans, went to leadership as well.

The federal fund has brought more than $637 million to Washington state.  It has protected wild corners of urban Puget Sound, such as the North Creek Forest near Bothell, assured access to lakes in Deception Pass State Park, and bought up private holdings along the Mountains to Sound Greenway and in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

The LWCF played a major role in protecting beaches and keeping farmlands, in the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island.  The reserve is managed jointly by the National Park Service and local residents.

“It is a profound disappointment that a small, radical minority in Congress eliminated a bipartisan program supported by more than 85 percent of the American people:  We need Congress to quickly correct this and permanently reauthorize LWCF to preserve our economy, quality of life and outdoor heritage,” said Vlad Gutman, senior policy director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.

The fund has enjoyed bipartisan support, some of the time, in Washington’s congressional delegation.  Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., helped save it on a close House vote in 2011.  But Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Doc Hastings, all R-Wash., voted to axe the fund.  Herrera Beutler now serves on the House Appropriations Committee. (The Long Island cedar forest in Willapa Bay,  preserved with help from LWCF, is in Herrera Beutler’s district.)

But the fund has fallen victim to such critics as Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“A portion of these funds should be re-invested in the education of future American energy industry workers,” Bishop told a reporter earlier this year.

In a later interview, Bishop expounded:  “There’s no way in hell I am going to allow you just to spend that (LWCF money) to buy the inholdings they’re talking about or to expand the footprint of the federal government.”

Elimination of the Land and Water Conservation Fund has long been an objective of ultraconservatives in the Republican Party, once an isolated minority but now occupying powerful positions in the House.

Decades ago, during the Reagan administration, axing the LWCF was a prime goal of U.S. Interior Secretary James Watt, the man who said famously that he didn’t like to paddle and didn’t like to walk.

The fund was saved in the Appropriations Committee by two Northwest lawmakers, U.S. Reps. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and Les AuCoin, D-Ore.

Watt called up Dicks and threatened to campaign against his re-election.  Out in his district, Dicks found that his support for the LWCF was a major asset, and saw his re-election margin rise by 10 points.  AuCoin was crestfallen when he missed Watt’s call.

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Suzan DelBene, both D-Wash., recently toured the North Creek Forest as a way of showing benefits of the fund.

When it was created in 1965, the LWCF had strong bipartisan support, not only from President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., who chaired the Senate Interior Committee, but also Republican conservationists Reps. John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania and Seattle Congressman Tom Pelly.

Such groups as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, and The Nature Conservancy, have used LWCF money in helping leverage preservation projects in Washington.  Federal, state, local money — and landowner generosity — all have gone into preservation and recreation projects.

“The failure to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a disappointment for every family and business in Washington who have come to rely on the clean water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat and quality of life that this 50-year-old conservation program affords,” said Mike Stevens, Washington state director for The Nature Conservancy.

“Now it’s time for every Washingtonian to speak with one voice, in partnership with our own elected officials in Washington, D.C., who are championing the restoration of this essential program.”

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