This essay appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 4, 2020.
By Charles S. Potter, Jr.
In a rare spasm of bipartisanship and common sense, the House in July passed the most significant conservation-related legislation in decades, the Great American Outdoors Act. President Donald Trump has just signed it into law.
Conservationists rightly are overjoyed by the measure, which mandates full funding of $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund — the single most important vehicle to answer Americans’ need for outdoor recreation. Established 55 years ago, the fund has protected key areas from development, allowing wildlife and fish to flourish while bolstering the rural economies that profit from hunting and fishing. The fund’s dollars bought significant portions of our national parks, protecting them for all Americans.
What’s more, not one penny came out of the taxpayers’ pocket. The fund relies on royalties paid on offshore oil and gas.
Despite these noble intentions and achievements, the fund went astray. Though the royalties generate billions each year, Congress only twice allocated the full, authorized amount to the fund, choosing instead to steer the money toward other priorities and untold numbers of pork-barrel projects. Since the fund’s establishment in 1965, more than $20 billion that should have gone to conservation went elsewhere, a broken promise to the American people.
Last year, Congress permanently authorized the fund, which had been subject to agonizing cycles of expiration and renewal. Last week’s vote now ensures a consistent flow of money that is badly needed to fix the infrastructure of our decaying parks, to improve our overused and undermanaged public hunting and fishing areas, and above all, to improve access to millions of acres for millions of Americans. It may even help revive our economy.
Yet we still have work to do. Congress now should enact critical reforms that will ensure greater economic efficiencies and broader opportunities for the millions of Americans who have an abiding interest in outdoor recreation, fish and wildlife conservation, and the protection of critical habitats.
The path forward is not complicated. Five years ago, a distinguished team of retired conservation professionals led by former Illinois natural resources chief Brent Manning wrote a position paper detailing ways to make the fund cost-efficient, foster accountability and gain grassroots support of historic proportions. Written for the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation’s Center for Conservation Leadership, the paper’s recommendations are especially relevant today.
Here are some of them:
- Allow funds to be used for securing conservation easements in addition to land acquisition. Leaders in some Western states argue that they already have enough federally controlled land within their borders. By expanding the program to allow easements, critical habitats will be protected while keeping them in private ownership — a more cost-efficient model for conservation.
- Use the fund to improve access for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, and to encourage better land management.This can be done through the purchase of rights of ways and easements as well as the leasing of lands. Large-scale land acquisition is not necessary to ensure conservation.
- Encourage public-private partnerships as a way to maximize efficiencies and build local support. In the 55 years since the fund was enacted, hundreds of efficient, capable nonprofits have emerged to offer innovative, practical ideas for conservation. They pride themselves on quality work and low overhead. They should be embraced — and put to work — through a grant-application process in which dollars they dedicate to habitat will be matched by fund dollars.
- Establish a commission to approve grants and ensure efficiency. This commission would be chaired by the secretary of the interior and staffed through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional members should include the secretary of agriculture, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and two members each of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate — appointed from each chamber by the majority and the minority leader. Once approved, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should monitor the grant project for full and successful completion.
Fifty-five years ago, the federal government was the only entity that could administer the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 2020, this is no longer the case. We should give private-sector interests the responsibility to drive sound recreation and conservation initiatives, working in conjunction with state and local governments and their elected representatives. We can create competition for funding, bring about enormous economic efficiencies and drive accountability.
The oil and gas companies that pay the bill deserve to know that the levy imposed on them is well spent. More important, the hundreds of millions of Americans who benefit from the fund deserve a greater voice in the process.
Let’s not waste this opportunity to ensure fiscal responsibility as well as a remarkable future for outdoor recreation, fish and wildlife management, and land and water conservation.
Charles S. Potter, Jr., is president and CEO of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation.