It’s been a year of real surprises, some good, some bad. Here’s a good one.
A Congress that seemingly couldn’t get anything done voted overwhelmingly to fully fund the government’s single biggest land acquisition program — the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
And several weeks ago President Trump, who only months earlier had vowed to slash that program’s funding by 97 percent, signed the bill.
This is remarkable for several reasons, not least the fact that the Land and Water Conservation Fund – which draws none of its money from taxes and most of its money from offshore oil and gas lease income – has been funded at its $900 million limit only twice before in its 55-year history. (That sum is roughly double current spending.)
What’s more, the action assures permanent funding that can be used to create, protect and maintain local parks, national parks, wetlands, wildlife refuges, fishing access and sources of drinking water.
It’s a conservation triumph, frankly. Historic. More on the how and why this year in a minute.
But first, a few words about an important aspect of the Land and Water Conservation Fund: the protection of water that comes about through the protection of land.
Here’s a case study that explains the relationship in economic terms. The report comes from the Land and Water Conservation Coalition, an association of 1,000 nature groups, land owners, small businesses, recreation advocates and so on that lobbied hard for full and permanent funding of the LWCF.
The subject is the Sterling Forest not far from New York City near the New York-New Jersey line.
“The protection of the 15,000-acre Sterling Forest in New York utilized $17.5 million from LWCF, matched by roughly twice that amount from state and private sources, to ensure clean drinking water for over two million residents of northern New Jersey.
“After the completion of the project, a study found that forest protection in the Highlands region (PA, NY, NJ, and CT) will save $50 billion in future water treatment costs. At the time of the acquisition, local municipalities in New Jersey were facing needed construction of a $160 million water treatment plant; however, the clean water protected by Sterling Forest made this unnecessary.
“A New York City report that compared water purification on forest lands versus treatment plants concluded that every $1.5 billion invested in land conservation in the Catskills provided the same water quality as $8 billion spent on treatment plants.”
Conservation has other benefits, of course. For example, wetlands have been found to store carbon quite well by drawing in greenhouse gases – hence a tool with which to combat climate change.
Then there’s all the recreation activity that open space and protected waters provide – a fact that’s explicit in the name of legislation that assured full funding for the LWCF: The Great American Outdoors Act.
The name helps explain why the success of this bill now after years of fruitless lobbying for full funding. In this year of pandemic, open and unconfined spaces have special appeal as evidenced in the sales of campaign equipment – they’re way up this year.
Another supporting argument is that the restoration and repair of trails and other outdoor facilities resulting from the legislation could generate more than 100,000 jobs, which is relevant information at a time of high unemployment.
Then there’s election year politics. Why would a president who’s removed protections from millions of acres of federal lands and has repeatedly tried to slash funding for land and water conservation agree to sign this bill?
Possible Answer #1: The landmark Great American Outdoors Act was passed with veto-proof majorities in the House (310-107) and the Senate (73-25).
Possible Answer #2: Two key sponsors of the bill were incumbent Republican senators in tourism-reliant Colorado and Montana who today find themselves facing unexpectedly strong competition in November. Both Senators Steve Daines (Montana) and Corey Gardner (Colorado) spoke at the White House signing ceremony.
A lesson from all this is that surprises can happen, preferably of the good sort.
Exhibit: The guarantee of full and permanent funding of land and water protections through the Great American Outdoors Act.