I applaud the U.S. House of Representatives for acting on July 30 to pass H.R. 3534, the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act. One provision of the CLEAR Act provides full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This is a reason for New Mexicans to celebrate, as communities and parks across our state will benefit through boosts to our local economies, recreation opportunities and wildlife habitats.
Signed into law in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson with then-Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall at his side, LWCF was established using royalties paid by companies drilling for oil and gas offshore to help protect America’s national parks, forests, refuges and other public lands. It also provide for recreational facilities and opportunities for Americans in all 50 states.
In New Mexico, LWCF funding has helped protect iconic areas such as Bandelier, Petroglyph, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monuments; the Rio Grande and Rio Chama wild and scenic rivers; the Organ Mountains; the Valles Caldera National Preserve; and every national forest in our state.
In addition, over 1,000 LWCF grants have been spread across every New Mexico county to enhance playgrounds, ball fields, pools and other recreational facilities. In Bernalillo County, parks that have benefitted from LWCF include Tingley Beach, Pat Hurley, West Mesa, Rio Bravo, and Phil Chacon.
LWCF is authorized at a level of $900 million per year but has been chronically shortchanged by Congress over the decades, with dedicated revenues regularly diverted to other purposes.
Full funding has been appropriated only once in the LWCF’s 46-year history and recently declined to a low of $138 million in 2007. This shortfall has resulted in a huge land protection and outdoor recreation backlog of unmet funding needs across our federal public lands and state and local parks.
Time for Senate action
The House of Representatives, with Congressman Heinrich emerging as a leader on its Natural Resources Committee, has responded to the BP oil spill disaster through the CLEAR Act, and there is both a historic and current mandate for LWCF to be part of this response. When LWCF was created in the 1960s, the White House and Congress intended to offset development in the Gulf with long-term protection of land, water, wildlife habitat and places for recreation.
In light of the disaster in the Gulf, 81 percent of Westerners believe that it is imperative that we invest in protecting our natural heritage through full and dedicated funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Now it is up to the U.S. Senate to vote for full funding for LWCF. New Mexicans are fortunate in that our senators are also calling for full and dedicated LWCF funding.
Last November, Senator Jeff Bingaman and co-sponsor Senator Max Baucus of Montana introduced legislation – S. 2747 – to provide full funding for LWCF to ensure an adequate and permanent investment in America’s natural, cultural, and recreational heritage. Senator Tom Udall quickly joined in to co-sponsor the bill. Thanks to their leadership, a funding boost for LWCF is included in the energy bill that the Senate will hopefully consider this month.
Congress is faced with many pressing issues, and time is running short in its 111th session, but this opportunity to fully fund LWCF may not soon come again. I hope Senators Bingaman and Udall and Congressman Heinrich will succeed in their efforts to pass legislation ensuring full and dedicated funding for LWCF – making land and water protection part of the solution. America’s treasured lands public need it – and Americans are demanding it.
Hart Stebbins is the Bernalillo County commissioner representing District 3.