When politicians say issues are never really dead, it pays to believe them. Because Congress has freed another worthwhile program from the clutches of gridlock.
Like the Export-Import Bank before it, the Land and Water Conservation Fund looked to be circling the drain after many years of bipartisan, controversy-free support.
On Sept. 30, the fund expired for the first time since it was formed 50 years ago because of the extreme views of House Natural Resources Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who wouldn’t let a reauthorization measure out of committee.
It is widely believed renewal would’ve passed a vote of the House and Senate.
The fund was established to purchase and set aside public land for recreational opportunities, but Bishop believes the federal government already has too much land and doesn’t have the wherewithal to maintain it.
LWCF funding doesn’t come from taxpayers. It comes from royalties paid by energy companies to drill on public land. Congress can authorize up to $900 million annually (an amount that hasn’t been adjusted for inflation), though the royalties raise a lot more than that.
Congress could allot more to handle maintenance backlogs, but it siphons the fund for other uses. Now that the Highway Trust Fund has been renewed (also long overdue), money should be freed up for federal road and bridge maintenance needed in parks.
The National Park Service has said it needs money to purchase national park “in-holdings,” or private land within parks. If such land were developed, it could disrupt the park experience.
The fund was the brainchild of Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and more than $600 million has been spent in the Evergreen State alone, and $16.8 billion nationwide.
It’s played a crucial role in making the Northwest a desirable place to live and visit.
Riverside State Park and Dishman Hills Natural Area are just two examples of northeast Washington state areas that have benefited. The fund has also bankrolled improvements at Friendship and High Bridge parks in Spokane, and Sunset Park in Airway Heights.
Congress revived the fund as part of its year-end scramble to finalize an omnibus spending package, but it only did so for three years. LWCF will get $450 million, or half what it could receive, for the 2016 fiscal year.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and others in the Washington delegation have pushed to make the funding permanent. The program, which has proven its worth for a half-century, should be removed from probationary status, and its funding should be protected from political raids.
But that’s a battle for another time.
The good news is that this admirable program has been rescued, for now, from an ideological assault.