Save the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund

EARLIER this month on a day U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called "a sad day for conservation," the U.S. House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee passed a bill devastating the crown jewel conservation program for America's public lands and waters — the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Created in 1965 to offset the environmental risks from offshore oil and gas development, the conservation fund uses money from federal oil and gas leases to protect environmentally sensitive lands and watersheds. Over the years, the fund has paid for the expansion of national, state and local parks as well as conservation easements, helping ranchers and timberland owners stay in business. All of this is accomplished without spending any federal tax dollars.

President Obama's budget for 2012 provided $900 million for the fund. Regrettably, the bill passed by the subcommittee cuts the budget figure by more than 93 percent to the lowest funding level in the program's 45-year history.

Fortunately, members of the U.S. Senate have introduced legislation to fully and permanently fund the program — federal money dedicated to protect and preserve access to some of Washington's most scenic and significant places, from the Interstate 90 corridor to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, from Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks to the Columbia River Gorge.

The Land and Water Conservation Funding and Authorization Act of 2011 (S. 1265) not only supports full and dedicated funding at $900 million (a fraction of what the federal government collects from offshore drilling), but also helps open more public lands to hunters and anglers.

As members of the outdoor industry, we know that preserving Washington's environment is critical to our quality of life and future prosperity. Whether fishing the Spokane River, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail through the Cascades, climbing Mount Rainier or simply picnicking in a local community park, the state of Washington offers unparalleled opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities — and many of those opportunities exist only because of the conservation fund.

Money received from the fund is an investment in the long-term prosperity of our communities because of the number of jobs outdoor recreation activities — like fishing, hunting, hiking and camping — bring to our state. Visitors flock to destinations across our state, spending their money in our local communities.

In Washington state alone, active, outdoor recreation contributes more than $11.7 billion annually to the state's economy, supports 115,000 jobs and generates $650 million in annual state tax revenue. This is in large part due to the broad spectrum of recreation infrastructure and access throughout the state, much of which has been financed by the fund.

Unfortunately, Congress continues to use these funds for purposes that have nothing to do with protecting our natural heritage or supporting outdoor recreation. And given recent action in the House of Representatives, it would seem some in Congress feel this year should be no exception.

Thankfully, the Senate now has an opportunity to fulfill a promise made to the American public and ensure communities around Washington receive critical funding they depend on each year for creating parks, fishing-access sites, hunting lands and ballfields.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have always fought for what is best for Washington and have been strong supporters of this funding for local projects. In fact, Cantwell co-sponsored a similar measure last year. We urge them both to join as co-sponsors to S. 1265 so that we preserve not only Washington's outdoors legacy but the jobs and income that go with it, for generations to come.