It amazes us that the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bedrock of our country’s dedication to acquiring and preserving public lands for more than 50 years, faces extinction at the end of September. After all, it is nearly impossible to come up with a single solid reason for killing it.
Established in 1964 by Congress in an era when bipartisan cooperation was more the rule than the exception, the fund has used royalties from off-shore oil leases to fund additions and improvements to public spaces in every state. The sweep is as grand as it gets, from national parks and historic battlefields down to small urban parks and baseball fields. Take a walk on the Animas River Trail if you need a reminder of a great local use of LWCF dollars.
Legislation in Congress, spearheaded by Sen. Michael Bennet and supported by Sen. Cory Gardner, aims to permanently reauthorize the LWCF before the Sept. 30 deadline. While it defies all common sense, there is opposition to the move; most of it based on misunderstanding, according to retired Army Major General Paul Eaton, who now advocates on behalf of the Vet Voice Foundation.
“This is not a federal land grab, and it never has been,” Eaton told us when he visited Durango recently. “There are no tax dollars involved.”
Unfortunately, the LWCF is tangled in the larger political debate over public lands. Those who advocate selling off the federal government’s public lands – or turning them over to state control – see the fund as a threat to that mission.
Garrett Reppenhagen, an Army veteran who performed over 100 missions as a sniper in Iraq and accompanied Eaton to Durango, is not impressed.
“That’s pure political grandstanding,” he said. “For them, it’s not about being opposed to conservation, it’s about being against anything favored by the left.”
Reppenhagen supplied another compelling reason to support reauthorization. Veterans have a deep affinity with our public lands, he said, and depend on them for aid when moving from combat duty back to civilian life.
“My transition was greatly benefited by being next door to a national forest,” he said. “It was so important for me to get away from people and into the silence of the outdoors. Without it, I might not have been able to do it.”
Reppenhagen has experienced that healing effect in larger circles as well. “I have seen more healing happen around one campfire than I have in 10 sessions in a VA hospital under fluorescent lights.”
He emphasizes how deeply public lands are a part of his American identity, and that of many of his fellow vets. “Before I deployed, I had never seen the Grand Canyon, but I knew it was mine. Public lands are the lands of the free.”
There is room for debate in determining just how LWCF money is applied going forward. Rep. Scott Tipton, for example, argued for changes when a bid for reauthorization failed in 2015. But there can be no debate on what is the right move for Congress at this time.
Tinker with details and argue the fine points later. Work together and reauthorize the LWCF, permanently, before Sept. 30.