The U.S. Capitol. (Image by skeeze from Pixabay )

By Rebecca Rubin

Our country’s lands and waters are more than stunning natural features. They are the very foundation of our health, security, way of life and all life itself.

This is why Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in 1964, which uses revenues from the depletion of one natural resource — offshore oil and gas— to support the conservation of other irreplaceable resources — our land and water. One of LWCF’s greatest strengths is that for all the benefits it brings to communities and our natural world, it doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent.

Since LWCF’s enactment over 50 years ago, forests, open spaces, watersheds and wildlife habitats have been better protected in every state. Numerous national parks and national wildlife refuges along with hundreds of trails and recreation projects across the country owe their existence and continuity to LWCF. These outdoor resources are not just scenic — they have helped boost local economies, create jobs and provide ecosystem services.

Virginia is no outlier. Many of our natural and cultural treasures are still around today because of LWCF. Places like the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Historic District and the Appalachian Trail have all received funding and protection through LWCF. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that Virginia’s active outdoor recreation attracts $21.9 billion in consumer spending and creates 197,000 jobs — which in turn generate $6.5 billion in wages and salaries and produce $1.2 billion annually in state and local tax revenue.

Despite LWCF’s contribution to important land and water protections here in Virginia and across the country, Congress did not until recently make the program permanent, leaving it stuck in a cycle of expiration and renewal that created uncertainty for landowners wanting to preserve their properties. But in February of this year, Congress voted by overwhelming margins to approve a public lands package that finally included permanent reauthorization of LWCF. The package was then signed into law on March 12.

The overwhelmingly bipartisan votes in the House and Senate reflect our nation’s longstanding commitment to conservation.

But the story does not end there. The untapped potential of America’s best conservation program will remain just that — untapped — unless Congress fully funds it, thereby ensuring future generations will benefit from LWCF.

While the program is now permanently authorized, it is still not guaranteed to receive funding every year. Current law authorizes LWCF to receive up to $900 million per year, but it has almost never been funded at that level — appropriations have typically been closer to $400 million. (Even the $900 million figure is one that originated in 1978; in now-year dollars, it would be $3.6 billion.)

Like the cycle of LWCF’s expiration and renewal, persistent underfunding has hampered LWCF’s goals, delaying property acquisitions for years and raising the risk of losing more important lands and waters.

Now, we need Congress to ensure LWCF’s funding for the future.

Luckily, we see signs of progress. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to fully fund the program. And, on Nov. 19, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved legislation to make mandatory the funding mechanism for LWCF.

Given the strategic value of Virginia’s outdoor resources from the twin standpoints of environment and economic benefits, now is the time for Congressman Rob Wittman and other Virginia lawmakers to demonstrate their commitment to conservation and our local economies by working decisively with their colleagues to get LWCF full funding enacted into law.

Rebecca Rubin

Rebecca R. Rubin is a board member of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, former board chair of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and president and CEO of Marstel-Day environmental consulting.