Wallowa Chieftain editorial: Vital bipartisan program merits full funding

Originally published in the Wallowa County Chieftan on May 12th, 2015

Land and Water Conservation Fund accomplishes worthwhile objectives, has historically received bipartisan support, and definitely merits renewal.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund may be the most popular federal program you’ve never heard of. Relying on no taxes, it takes some of the proceeds from offshore oil and gas leases and reinvests those funds in outdoor recreation and conservation throughout America.

It is national self-improvement using assets that belong to all of us — a sort of savings account in the form of better state and local parks, as well as enhancements in national parks, wilderness areas, forests and wildlife refuges. Started in 1964, it is key to the creation and maintenance of “thousands of local playgrounds, soccer fields and baseball diamonds,” according to the Trust for Public Land. It was the creation of Washington’s legendary Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, at the request of President John Kennedy.

In a continuation of a tiresome pattern, last year Congress used only $306 million for intended purposes, siphoning away the bulk of LWCF money. In all the years, $17 billion from the LWCF has been frittered away. For the coming budget period, President Obama has asked that the entire $900 million in current funds be used as federal law requires. This request is strongly supported by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

The biggest project that may be funded in Oregon is the Pathways to the Pacific, which would receive $14 million to stabilize fish runs and improve public access with acquisitions in the Oregon National Historic Trail, the John Day Wild and Scenic River, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. In the lower Columbia region, this package includes the Willapa and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges.

In Oregon, “Without full funding, some critical projects in Oregon like protecting the east moraine of Wallowa Lake, will never get completed and instead be lost to development or other threats,” said Kelley Beamer, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts.

The plan to protect the east moraine, championed locally by Wallowa Land Trust, was ranked number 10 among over 40 ranking applications nationwide, so chances of the plan actually going forward are excellent — if Congress renews the LWCF, that is.

In Willapa, $4.2 million would pay willing sellers for a 1,458-acre Willapa refuge expansion. According to the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Coalition: “Funds would acquire three properties next to the main unit. They would help protect and improve the overall health and function of the Willapa Bay watershed and the aquatic species within it. This acquisition would also create an opportunity to enhance and restore western red cedar forests to eventually re-establish late successional old-growth function. These areas are important to Federal and State endangered/threatened species and most migratory bird species using the Pacific Flyway. The federally-listed marbled murrelet recovery plan identifies Southwest Washington as a significant gap in suitable nesting habitat along the Pacific Northwest Coast. Increasing available habitat in this area is critical to expanding the geographic distribution of the murrelet within its threatened range.”

This program clearly deserves continuing enthusiastic support by Congress. Generations of bipartisan support for this smart investment of national funds in local communities deserves to be honored and sustained.