In America, the great outdoors is a way of life and a strong representation of our national heritage.
For generations, Americans from all walks of life have made memories hiking, fishing and camping on our extensive network of public lands, parks and open spaces. For the vast majority of Americans, enjoying the outdoors with family and friends means spending quality time at neighborhood playgrounds, ballparks and recreation centers.
For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been one of the most important programs to support these American traditions. Created with bipartisan support, the LWCF has helped to protect our national parks, national forests, monuments and wildlife refuges and has funded over 41,000 state and local park projects touching nearly every county in the country.
This storied program has benefited so many different groups in America, and for many Latinos and other diverse urban communities, it often has provided the only means to easily access the outdoors. But, the LWCF is under threat — it is set to expire at the end of September unless Congress agrees to reauthorize it.
To complicate the future of the LWCF further, the funding source for this historic program is being eyed for other projects. The LWCF is funded through royalties collected from offshore drilling. The concept was that as we removed one natural resource, we should invest in protecting another.
Legislation was recently introduced by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would use the same funding source to create a new mandatory $1.3 billion annual fund that would be used for maintenance backlog issues in our national parks. The huge backlog of unfunded maintenance in our parks has been an ongoing issue that definitely needs the attention of our elected officials and is a worthy goal, but the LWCF should not be left on the cutting room floor.
The royalties that the LWCF can receive in any given year are capped at $900 million, and Congress has to authorize its funding annually, meaning that Congress can decide to give it much less than what it should be receiving. In fact, the LWCF has only been fully funded twice in its more than 50-year history. This new legislation looks to not only tap that same pot of royalties — making full funding of the LWCF increasingly unlikely — but also seeks to use a portion of federal revenue from drilling and mining of sensitive onshore public lands to address critical maintenance issues.
By focusing solely on our national parks, we would jeopardize vital community resources and disproportionately harm urban dwellers who generally enjoy fewer outdoor spaces in their neighborhoods. The LWCF not only protects both remote and urban spaces that all Americans can enjoy locally in their communities, it is also a huge economic driver, helping to support over 7.5 million jobs and producing $887 billion in consumer spending annually.
We definitely need to solve the backlog maintenance issue at our national parks — there is no doubt about that — but we shouldn’t sacrifice the LWCF in order to do so. We should not be forced to choose between critical maintenance needs for our national parks and protecting the open spaces we know and love in our communities.
All of us share a moral obligation to ensure that future generations have access to our public lands, and Congress must demonstrate its commitment to protecting this access for all Americans, not just those with the means to visit our national parks. We have no doubt that the United States has the moral and financial capacity to do both.
With fewer than 100 days before America’s most important parks program expires, it is time for Congress to set aside politics and save a vital program that has allowed generations of Americans, regardless of socioeconomic background, to explore and enjoy our public lands and open spaces. If our leaders in Congress are serious about passing legislation that benefits all Americans’ right to outdoor access, permanently reauthorizing and fully funding the LWCF is the common sense solution.
Maite Arce is founder and current president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation.
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