Denver Post Guest Commentary: Ensuring full funding for Land and Water Conservation Fund

By Andrew Currie, Ken Strom, and Erica Stock If you live in Colorado, you know that we are privileged to enjoy countless breathtaking vistas, magical wilderness areas laced with free-flowing rivers, and highly-rated urban parks and trails every day for recreation, sports or just some peace and quiet.

What many of us might not know is that a large number of our most beloved lakes, streams, woodlands, local parks and playgrounds have been protected for us by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF is the principal source of federal dollars for protecting land in America's national parks, forests, and other public landscapes and ensuring recreational opportunities for Americans in every state in the nation. LWCF helps fund many of Colorado's recreation areas like the Platte River trail system, Castlewood Canyon State Park and Garden of the Gods, as well as national treasures like Yellowstone National Park, California's Big Sur Coast, Florida's Everglades, and historic Civil War battlefields.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created by Congress in 1965 and is authorized to receive $900 million annually in federal revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing. Unfortunately, the LWCF program has received full funding only once in its history. In recent years, it has steadily declined to a low in appropriated funding of $155 million in 2008, and in total has been shortchanged about $17 billion since its inception.

Despite this, the LWCF has worked in every state of the Union - indeed nearly every county in every district in America - to fund state and local park activities. These projects contribute not only to our natural environment, but also create jobs and draw visitors for recreation, sporting and other activities.

Colorado's treasure of mountains, rivers and great outdoors brings in hundreds of thousands of outdoor recreationists annually - participating in bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling, snow sports, hiking, climbing and wildlife viewing - who generate an estimated $10 billion in state tax revenues and retail sales and services across the state while supporting over 100,000 jobs.

LWCF began as part of a simple deal: as America's oil and gas was extracted from federal lands and waters, a portion of the associated revenue was intended to be reinvested in conservation of the lands and waters Americans care about. But even though there's been more than enough revenue year after year from the oil and gas leasing to fully fund LWCF at no cost to the American taxpayer, Congress has diverted the funds and failed to use the money for its intended purpose.

Efforts are underway, supported by groups across Colorado and the nation, to insure the long overdue full funding for LWCF. Recently on July 30, the issue to fully fund LWCF passed in the U.S House of Representatives. We applaud our Colorado delegates heartily for their efforts and role in this success. Congresswoman Betsy Markey, 4th District Colorado, cast her affirmative vote that day joining Jared Polis and Diana DeGette, and Colorado U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet were instrumental by co-sponsoring legislation in the Senate that would ensure a dedicated source for permanent full funding of LWCF.

But the fight to make things right is not over. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has tabled the Senate's discussion and vote on the LWCF until after the August recess, fearing he would not have enough votes to pass the issue. We must ensure that full and permanent funding for LWCF remains a priority in September.

Let's make this extraordinary value crystal "clear" for Congress. We greatly appreciate what Congresswoman Markey, Senator Udall, Senator Bennet and others have already accomplished, and we urge our Colorado Senators to keep up their strong leadership as the LWCF goes before the Senate, and to continue their robust support.

A victory here will finally and rightfully ensure full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, one of our best tools for conserving the Nation's great outdoors, increasing recreational access to our favorite parks and natural places, and supporting the tourist and recreation industry jobs and businesses that in large measure contribute to Colorado's economic health.

Andrew Currie is founder of Conservation Havens, LLC. Ken Strom is the director of Audubon Colorado, the state program of the National Audubon Society. Erica Stock is the outreach director for Colorado Trout Unlimited.