NW View: Conservation fund needs Teddy-style heroes in Congress

It’s a familiar congressional melodrama: Critically important bill is tied to the tracks by villainous gridlock while bipartisan hero rides to the rescue. In the real-life “Perils of Pauline,” though, the imperiled heroine sometimes gets ground up under the iron wheels.

That’s the script the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund is caught in.

This program has funded $17 billion worth of park improvements and land conservation projects since it was established in 1965. Without it, Civil War battlefields might have been turned into subdivisions, the Pacific Crest Trail would be fragmented and Mount Rainier National Park would be smaller. The fund has been a godsend for public recreation and conservation, in this state and in the nation.

It’s due to expire next month, though, and partisan infighting threatens to let that happen if Congress fails to reauthorize the fund with a bill sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican.

This is an echo of Theodore Roosevelt’s battles with timber barons and others who wanted to loot the West’s national resources. Roosevelt’s strategy involved putting large tracts of Western land under federal control as national forests and national parks. Much of the West would have been lost to the public but for his pre-emptive strike against greedy land-grabbers.

The fund’s revenues don’t come from taxpayers’ pockets. Appropriately, they come from leasing fees paid by extractors of public goods – in this case that oil companies that pump petroleum from America’s offshore waters. It’s a reasonable tradeoff: You profit from the nation’s natural resources, you help pay to preserve and improve some of those resources.

Over the years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped secure Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, built trails, created wildlife refuges, protected rivers and streams from encroachment, and kept beaches, campgrounds and mountain forests accessible to the public.

By the reckoning of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it has helped finance 41,000 state and local park projects. A few examples: Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park and Kandle Park Aquatics Center, Fife’s municipal pool and Lakewood’s Harry Todd Park. The state as a whole has received $637 million for preservation and public recreation projects.

The whole program evaporates, though, on Sept. 30, when a sunset provision kicks in.

The new Murkowski-Cantwell legislation would prevent that by permanently reauthorizing the fund. It would also create a National Park Maintenance and Revitalization Fund to rescue the country’s national parks and monuments from decrepitude.

The “villain” in the show is resistance to federal acquisition of land. The Murkowski-Cantwell bill would earmark at least 40 percent of the fund’s revenues to state and local projects, which typically pull in matching funds from non-federal agencies and nonprofits. Some of the rest would be used to put unprotected land in public ownership or control.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, is one of those who doesn’t want the federal government acquiring that much property. As chairman of the House Committee on National Resources, he’s in a position to block or eviscerate the Senate bill. And the locomotive is on schedule to demolish the Land and Water Conservation Fund at the end of next month.

This bill needs heroes, especially in the House. Maybe a reminder is in order: Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican, and conservation is one of the old Republican Party’s greatest legacies to the nation.


This column reflects the views of the editorial board of the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma.