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DiPeso: Conservation Fund Deserves Full Funding

It’s Saturday on a gorgeous summer day in America.

At Henry’s Lake in Idaho’s high country, deep in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, anglers cast for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, beauties that have swum the shallow lake since the Ice Age and are prized for their fight and vivid color.

[IMGCAP(1)]About 1,500 miles to the east in a wildly beautiful Tennessee forest, paddlers cruise down the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, seeing the natural wonders that their forebears might have seen after they had gone west through the Cumberland Gap.

The anglers and paddlers might be Republicans. They might be Democrats. They might be neither. It doesn’t matter, because there is broad, deep and bipartisan support for Henry’s Lake, Big South Fork, and the thousands of other special places that have been protected and improved through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The LWCF is a program that works. It provides critical funding for open space and places to play that are available to all citizens, which in turn pays dividends in high quality of life, good health and local economic activity.

The LWCF investments also safeguard water supplies, reduce wildfire suppression costs and help prevent flooding.

The program, the brainchild of a commission established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, ensures that we balance the use of our natural resources with investments in conservation and stewardship.

Funding for the LWCF comes from royalties paid by offshore oil and gas producers in federal waters. The current mess in the Gulf of Mexico underscores why maintaining that balance is so important.

Despite its popularity and effectiveness, however, the LWCF account has been raided to finance other programs. Over the past decade, Congress appropriated an average of only $313 million annually from the fund, far below the $900 million per year authorized in 1977.

The lack of fiscal discipline that has shortchanged investments in our natural heritage doesn’t square with what American citizens want. Recent polling shows that 86 percent of voters — including 83 percent of Republicans — support using offshore oil and gas revenues for protecting open space and expanding outdoor recreation opportunities.

A similar number, 85 percent, agree that the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a powerful reminder that the environmental risks of offshore oil and gas production warrant investment of royalties in conservation.

And why not?

The LWCF covers all the land protection bases — a federal component that has enlarged the American commons of national parks, forests and wildlife refuges as well as a state component that pays for parks and recreation areas that meet local priorities.

Land acquisitions under the program do not unduly burden taxpayers. Because lands are acquired from willing sellers, they do not infringe on private property rights.

Congress has an opportunity over the next few weeks to correct the shortchanging of the LWCF by securing funding to the level fully authorized by law every year.

On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers agree that governance and management of offshore oil and gas production must be reformed to guard against another catastrophic spill.

Reform legislation is the proper vehicle for ensuring that royalties paid to the American people for the privilege of producing energy from America’s marine endowment are invested in conservation to the fullest extent authorized by law.

Our generation is enjoying the fruits of our forebears’ stewardship investments through the proven effective Land and Water Conservation Fund. It is the right thing for us to do likewise for those unborn generations that will follow.

Jim DiPeso is the vice president for policy and communications at Republicans for Environmental Protection.

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