By Michele S. Byers
Chances are you’ve never heard of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But if you live in New Jersey, you will be pleased to know that this federal fund has created parks and protected open spaces near you.
All five of New Jersey’s national wildlife refuges were preserved with funds from this program, as well as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Appalachian Trail and many national historic sites. Matching grants have helped fund local, county and state park projects, along with wildlife habitat and watershed protection in every corner of this state we’re in.
It is also important to know that this program is not funded by taxpayer dollars. Instead, the money comes from existing oil and gas leases in the Atlantic Ocean’s Outer Continental Shelf.
The U.S. government takes in billions of dollars each year from these offshore leases, and, by law, $900 million should be allocated every year for the protection and enhancement of America’s natural lands. But Congress routinely raids this revenue source, and for the fiscal year that’s just ending, the Land and Water Conservation Fund received only $322 million.
The current budget debates in Washington, D.C. sound like déjà vu all over again. There’s a split among those who would like to see more funding for conservation, and those who would like to divert money for other uses.
Unfortunately, a recent effort to secure more Land and Water Conservation funds through a federal transportation bill was not successful. New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, D-12th, led a bipartisan group of his House colleagues, including almost every House member from New Jersey, in calling for the end of the funding raids, and for supporting a provision that would double conservation funding to $700 million per year for the next two years. But the transportation bill is headed for passage without the conservation funding.
Now, hope for funding this program falls to other committees, and so far the news isn’t good. The House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment Appropriations approved a bill that slashes funding by 80 percent, to a paltry $66 million. The only bright spot is $4 million included for the Highlands Conservation Act, thanks to New Jersey Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11th.
The Senate may be able to provide more robust funding with the continued leadership of New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez.
Contrary to what the “would-be Land and Water Conservation Fund raiders” may say, public investments in parks, recreation facilities, clean water, clean air and coastal protection are exactly that … investments. And these investments pay enormous dividends to the public, over and over and over again.
Take our recreation and tourism industries, which include travel to outdoor destinations, and a myriad of offshoot industries, such as outdoor clothing and equipment. These industries contribute $1.06 trillion and over 9 million jobs nationwide, every year.
It is now well documented that significant and irreplaceable public health benefits come from greater access to parks and natural areas, including cleaner air and water which means less asthma and disease, and increased physical fitness. And don’t forget the enhanced quality of life we feel from quiet enjoyment of the wonders of Mother Nature.
Last but not least, these protected natural lands provide ecological services that benefit us all. It costs a lot less to protect wetlands that absorb floodwaters like giant sponges, than to pay for highly engineered and expensive flood control systems. It’s much cheaper to use preserved forests and wetlands to protect our clean water than to build water purification plants to clean it after it is polluted.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a public trust resource that belongs to all of us. Please take action now by contacting New Jersey’s two U.S. Senators, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, and the state’s House of Representatives delegation. Thank them for all they’ve done in the past to support conservation funding, and ask them to secure full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
For more information about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, go to www.lwcfcoalition.org. To find your House member, go to www.house.gov/representatives/find/. To contact our Senators, go to www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm?State=NJ. And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.