A handful of our representatives in Congress are quietly preparing a multibillion-dollar rip-off of American families.
Count yourself among the cheated if you value kids’ sports, good health and the Great Outdoors. If Congress does nothing – and Congress is very good at doing nothing – it will quietly smother the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The conservation fund has been one of the most successful programs for decades; it has preserved beloved landscapes and made lives healthier and happier across America. It has worked wonders for 50 years without costing taxpayers a cent. Who would want to kill it?
His name is Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, and he is the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. His committee has jurisdiction over the fund because it involves taking royalties from offshore oil drilling and distributing them toward outdoor access, wildlife habitat and urban parks and recreation projects.
If you are under 50, you grew up in a country with city parks, zoos, tennis courts and basketball courts funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If you camp, boat, hunt and fish, you probably use boat ramps and wildlife habitat secured with its money. The fund’s money has supported projects in 99 percent of counties in the United States.
Today, as it has for the last 50 years, the fund enjoys broad bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. I remember my Republican senator, the late (and staunchly conservative) Conrad Burns of Montana, telling me that he liked the fund “because it solves problems.”
Since the 1960s, the fund has authorized up to $900 million dollars a year from offshore oil royalties to go toward conservation. But Congress loves to raid that piggy bank, so only a few times has the fund kept all of the money to which it was entitled. Now, there’s an even more serious problem. The fund is set to expire Sept. 30. It nearly did expire in 2015, but Congress pulled it back from the brink and extended it for three years. Today, however, the clock is ticking.
Killing the conservation fund does not save taxpayers money because the money comes from royalties. The fund has never been a “burden” on energy companies, which must pay royalties no matter who gets the money.
What, then, is the hang-up? The answer is mostly petty politics and ideology. Some conservation fund money goes to the national forest and national park systems for land conservation, and Bishop frequently has heartburn over how those federal lands are managed. Given his powerful committee chairmanship, Bishop has a virtual stranglehold on the conservation fund.
Another obstacle is that other anti-government members of Congress seem to hate any successful federal program: They want to kill the conservation fund out of spite.
The genius of the fund is that it recognizes that offshore oil is a public resource that belongs to all Americans. It invests some of the money from our resources into long-term benefits for both urban and rural communities, spread around the country.
Some Republicans say they oppose the conservation fund because they want to hold it hostage to the current maintenance backlog in national parks. Underfunded for decades, our national parks are in poor shape, with roads and outhouses that are far below standard. That’s why, some argue, we should raid the conservation fund piggy bank to pay for those repairs.
That argument is disingenuous on several levels. First, the arch-conservatives who starved the National Park Service for decades are now using this self-created crisis for their own ends. If Congress wants to tap oil royalties to pay for park maintenance, it can do so. Lawmakers need not smash the conservation fund piggy bank to assist the Park Service. Furthermore, using it this way misses the entire point behind the conservation fund, which is about making long-term investments with one-time dollars. Maintenance costs never end. It’s like putting fuel and oil into your car; it’s part of the deal that comes with ownership.
Americans need the Land and Water Conservation Fund more than ever. Sadly, a disproportionate number of American kids are obese. All kids need a place to play and exercise. Just as sad, American children are increasingly disconnected from nature. More and more people have fewer and fewer places to go to get outside and away from their electronic devices.
There are three bills in Congress today – all with broad bipartisan support – that would permanently reauthorize and even fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s time to take this political football out of the hands of ideologically overcharged politicians. Time is running out. A bill needs to pass by Sept. 30.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Kalispell, Montana, where he is senior program director for Resource Media.