Editorial: No-tax Land and Water Conservation Fund needs to be saved

By:  The Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board
Source: The Yakima Herald-Republic

Some curious visitors stopped in Sunnyside recently. The long-billed dowitcher flitted in from Siberia, its elongated beak feeding like a jackhammer on the ponds. The haughty American avocet strutted Jagger-like on its long, reedy legs, beak upturned and red head held aloft. A Wilson’s phalarope swooped down, as well, with its silver-streaked plumage and its ceaseless spinning like a Goth kid at a rave.

Birders, each summer and fall, flock to the Sunnyside Wildlife Recreation Area to focus their binoculars and ogle the array of avian offerings.

For that, they can thank in large part a federal program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which since 1964 has provided billions in funding to recreation areas and conservation programs across the nation. Over the years, the LWCF has invested $637 million in more than 600 Washington state wilderness areas, habitat breeding grounds and even city parks and trails.

This fund, which uses royalties from federal offshore oil and gas drilling and takes not a single penny from taxes, is due to expire on Sept. 30. Bipartisan support is fomenting around bills in the U.S. Senate and House to permanently reauthorize the program with full funding. The LWCF, championed long ago by legendary Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, originally came up for renewal in early 2016, but a divided Congress merely kept it on life support for more than two years, siphoning off some of the $900 million it annually brings in to pay down the deficit and fund other programs.

It’s time, however, for lawmakers to make the LWCF permanent. Ensuring the fund remains enduring and untouchable makes sense both from conservation and economic viewpoints. The conservation part is self-evident. From Mount Rainier National Park to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area — both aided by LWCF dollars — our state’s iconic natural wonders are, literally, priceless. Economically, recreation is a huge driver – generating $26 billion in consumer spending and more than 200,000 direct jobs.

In the Senate, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell is a co-sponsor of the reauthorization bill, telling reporters that “the LWCF is the key tool that we use to help communities, to help the state, to help our nation preserve those recreation opportunities and to make the most cost-effective use of the land.”

In the House, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, voted against permanent reauthorization in a 2016 non-binding resolution. He says he has supported the LWCF, but not without reservation. Asked Monday about the new bill, Newhouse said in a statement: “As I have in the past, I continue to support long-term reauthorization of this fund. Reliable funding through LWCF is important, and I believe that for reasons of accountability and review, federal programs such as LWCF should be reauthorized periodically to ensure that critical conservation efforts are managed effectively.”

We urge Newhouse to reconsider this time around and support permanent funding, given how vital a role the LWCF has played in shaping the outdoors opportunities in the Valley.

And just how pervasive has the fund been in establishing and maintaining outdoors venues in these parts?

Well, if you like hunting and fishing at the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest or in the Yakima River Canyon, if you relish hiking amidst the sage on the Cowiche Canyon trails, if you enjoy picnicking at Bolin Park in Toppenish or playing tennis at South Hill Park in Sunnyside, you should give a supportive nod to the LWCF. It helped fund each of those efforts.

In fact, Yakima’s signature piece of outdoor recreation, the Greenway, received $67,750 from the LWCF in 1984, with adjacent Rotary Lake receiving $47,000 in 1991.

Need we go on?

Well, perhaps just a few more local gems that have benefitted from the LWCF will drive the point home: Applewood Park in Naches, Tree Phones Campground and Eagle Nest Picnic Area in the Ahtanum Forest, the Oak Creek Elk Viewing Site west of Naches.

And then there’s the $289,677 that has gone to the Sunnyside Wildlife Recreation Area, where, if you’re patient and adjust the high-powered binoculars just right, you might catch sight of the yellow-legged Least Sandpiper, said to be the world’s smallest shorebird.