Fifty years ago today, Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation establishing the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Based on a simple, elegant idea, the fund uses revenues from the sale of one natural resource owned by the American public – offshore oil and gas – to support the conservation of another precious resource: our land and water.
The fund is supposed to receive $900 million a year in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the outer continental shelf. The money is intended to create and protect national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, as well as areas around rivers and lakes. It is also meant to provide matching grants for state and local parks and projects to increase access to recreational facilities in communities around the country.
Over the past five decades California has benefited more than any other state with more than $2 billion invested in urban and rural communities. The fund has made major contributions to Yosemite, Sequoia, Redwood national parks, Muir Woods, the Lake Tahoe basin and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, among many others. The lawmakers who crafted the original legislation also recognized the importance of ensuring increased access to soccer and ball fields, municipal pools and community and regional parks. The fund’s state and local assistance program has provided $287 million in matching grants in California, including more than $68 million for more than 320 projects in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area alone.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been an important source of funding to protect endangered species in California, including for conservation planning and land acquisition in such places as the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And the fund provides resources for public agencies to better manage our public lands and watersheds so that these habitats are more resilient in the face of climate change and threats from fires.
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The fund’s investment in our public lands, and national, state and local parks, is a continuing investment in our country’s outdoor and recreational economy. Americans spent about $646 billion a year on outdoor recreation, and more than 6.1 million people are employed in this sector in the United States. California-based companies such as Patagonia, North Face, Marmot and Clif Bar are just a few of the entrepreneurial companies that benefit from our love of the outdoors and contribute back to our state economy and have benefited indirectly from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, because it helped protect the places where we play.
But despite these incredible benefits and continuing need for investments to protect our public lands and waters, Congress shortchanges the Land Water Conservation Fund and diverts two-thirds of the fund for unrelated purposes, leaving community-driven, ready-to-go projects on hold year after year. And next year the fund will expire completely if Congress doesn’t act to reauthorize it.
A broad coalition of community and political leaders, conservation organizations, outdoor-oriented businesses, mayors, hunters and anglers have come together – across the political spectrum – to urge another 50-year commitment to conservation and recreation. The coalition is also pushing to ensure that Congress and presidential administrations no longer divert money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and instead lock in an investment of $900 million a year in the fund for as long as we’re still pumping oil and gas from the outer continental shelf.
That oil and gas won’t last forever. And in the next 50 years, we’ll need to curtail our carbon emissions dramatically. The Land and Water Conservation Fund can be an important tool in making the transition, using money from our carbon economy, which is on its way out, to fund our green infrastructure of the future.
We hope that California’s powerful Senate and House delegation, regardless of party, will play a leadership role in authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund for another 50 years and ensure that generations to come enjoy the benefits of our investment in a greener future.