The future of America's great outdoors is in the hands of Congress this week. On Wednesday, it is likely both the House and the Senate will have a historic opportunity to support and reinvigorate the nation's key program for protecting our lands and waters.
Since 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been instrumental in preserving iconic national landmarks, wildlife refuges, working farms and ranches, and state and local parks. With America now losing 3 million acres every year to development, ensuring full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund is more critical than ever.
Maryland has been well served by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Our state has received more than $200 million to protect Maryland's most significant natural and historic places, including Antietam National Battlefield, Assateague National Seashore and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. This funding has also helped protect places around the corner, too, such as parks and ball fields for Maryland's kids and families.
In short, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has made it possible for the people of Maryland to enjoy our great outdoors, stay healthier, and become more deeply connected to our country. At the same time, the fund helps preserve wildlife habitat, economic opportunities and water quality.
A prime example of this is illustrated by Sandy Point State Park. More than $2 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund enabled the state to not only expand this popular recreation site, but also to preserve vital migratory bird habitat along our embattled Chesapeake Bay.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund does not get its money from taxes, but rather from royalties paid to the government by companies drilling offshore for oil and gas. The fund was created by Congress to offset the depletion of one natural resource — our oil and gas — to protect important lands and waterways, and provide outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans to enjoy.
Yet, despite the Land and Water Conservation Fund's original authorization of $900 million per year, for decades the funding has mostly been diverted elsewhere.
The legislation that Congress is now considering is simple. It would restore the original promise of the Land and Water Conservation Fund by ensuring that it will be spent on its original purpose: the protection of our rich natural, historic and recreational heritage here in Maryland and across the country.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is especially relevant in helping restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Protecting our region's forests and farmlands can help reduce the pollution going into the bay, to the benefit of oysters, crabs and other wildlife in the nation's largest estuary.
Furthermore, we also need a fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund to leverage support for Maryland's leading state conservation programs, such as Program Open Space. Money generated through this state program is often matched by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, thus doubling Program Open Space's ability to protect Maryland's most important natural and historic assets.
With the tragic gulf oil spill reminding us of the costs of offshore drilling, Americans are long since due the opportunity to make full use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect the places that make our country great.
We encourage Congress to finally allow the Land and Water Conservation Fund to receive the full support it was intended to receive. In the Senate, the vote will go to the floor this week through legislation addressing the gulf oil spill; in the House, it will be considered through the Consolidate Lands, Energy and Aquatic Resources Act (CLEAR).
We commend Reps. Frank Kratovil and John Sarbanes for their votes in support of CLEAR in the House Natural Resources Committee last week. In passing these measures in support of the Lands and Water Conservation Fund, Congress will be helping protect the lands and waters that make Maryland a special place.
Nat Williams is director of The Nature Conservancy in Maryland/DC. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.