The deadline to reauthorize the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was last week, and we should be celebrating. Unfortunately, despite its popularity and bipartisan support, the LWCF was not reauthorized, as we had hoped. And despite the 219 U.S. representatives who supported the LWCF reauthorization legislation, House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who thinks “special interests” were seeking to “hijack” the LWCF, stood in the way of America’s most important conservation program. We can only assume that these so-called special interests referred to by Bishop included local economies, healthy watersheds, clean air, and healthy, active communities. Now, all of these are threatened.
Over the last 50 years - without costing taxpayers a single dime - LWCF has put more than $17 billion into the protection of land in every state, contributed support to more than 41,000 state and local park projects, and improved access to the outdoors for millions of people.
The LWCF has also been an important economic driver supporting jobs and the revitalization of local communities. In 2010, $214 million was spent on land acquisitions, which, according to the Department of the Interior, returned more than double that investment and supported an estimated $442 million in economic activity and about 3,000 jobs. Speaking even more to the return on investment is the fact that for every $1 of LWCF funds invested the American people see a return of $4 in economic value. With so many benefits, it is no wonder that the LWCF is so popular.
While the LWCF has certainly been beneficial to all people, the program has deeper meaning for the Latino community. The fund isn’t simply about protecting land and water: it helps with conservation of historic places where Hispanic families have lived for generations. Places like Oak Creek Canyon and Slide Rock State Park in Arizona, where Hispanic Pioneers settled, are protected. Our country’s colorful, multicultural history is reflected in our landscapes because of the LWCF.
The fund also provides access to park spaces and the great outdoors for recreation opportunities that have a positive impact on Latino communities’ health and quality of life. The importance of LWCF to Latinos is underscored by the fact that this population is disproportionately affected by environmental factors that place their long-term health in serious jeopardy. Preserving these spaces represents a fundamental American value.
How, then, is it possible that an unpopular ideological stance against public lands stands in the way of the reauthorization of the LWCF? It’s one thing to not like or agree with the concept of public lands, but it is a completely different thing to stand in the way of a majority of Americans who support reauthorization of the LWCF.
As Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) stated: “Back in the good old days, Republicans supported programs like LWCF. Today their leaders seem to find parks, public lands and local baseball fields politically unacceptable. This is not about saving taxpayer money, since LWCF accepts none. This is about an ongoing ideological war on public lands conservation. Letting the Fund expire will be a lasting black mark on the leadership of this Congress.”
Instead of celebrating this week, we continue to push back on Chairman Bishop’s personal agenda to grab the LWCF’s funding mechanism for his own purposes. We are concerned about the playgrounds, recreation centers, ball fields, and state park projects for future generations that hang in the balance. The LWCF has benefitted us all for 50 years, playing a key role in protecting not just land and water, but our country’s dynamic, multicultural past. What will happen now?
By Camilla Simon and Maite Arce. Simon and Arce are co-chairs of the Latino Conservation Alliance.