Commentary: Congress could make this a September to remember for public lands

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophie Mason, 5, plays along along Firebreak Road on Twin Hollow Mountain Wednesday October 28, 2015. In the background is Brandon Mason, 14, Lexie Mason, 8 and Kate Mason, 12. A pair of Utah developers are seeking a public land swap in the Bountiful foothills that they say will accommodate public access and conservation in two key spots. Some nearby residents, however, fear the plan would invite high-density residential growth in the wrong place.

As Americans who love the outdoors, this is our favorite time of year, and we would rather be outside on public lands making memories than worrying about partisan politics. For Amy, this means hiking among the fall foliage in Rocky Mountain National Park with her daughter, and for Whit, fall holds the promise of filling the freezer with Adirondack venison.

Although this is the season we come together in celebration of what we share on public lands, the mid-term elections tend to prompt both sides to retreat to their respective corners. That’s why this week we were in our nation’s capital with other outdoorsmen and women, including small business owners who depend on access to public lands, to tell Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

If Congress can work together to do right by the LWCF in time, then public-land users of all stripes and in every corner of the country will benefit.

The LWCF is America’s most important conservation and outdoor recreation program, which has the rare distinction of broad bipartisan appeal. It supports the trails and open spaces important to hikers like Amy and access to hunting and fishing areas with plentiful wild game that are important to sportsmen like Whit.

Its success is based on a concept that has endured for more than half a century, bringing balance to a nation defined by wild places and industrial progress: Reinvest the royalties from offshore oil and gas development to permanently conserve our country’s most precious outdoor treasures and guarantee public access for the enjoyment of the American people.

In this way, the program never uses a dime of taxpayer money. It is funded entirely from a fraction of the revenue gained through the extraction of natural resources and goes back to conserving irreplaceable outdoor spaces. The kicker is that every member of Congress can thank LWCF for improving outdoor recreation opportunities back home — projects, from local parks to fishing access, have been funded in every district and in every state in the nation.

These investments in our public lands create more job opportunities, too. The Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Recreation Economy report highlights that outdoor recreation — including fishing, kayaking, hiking, and hunting — generates more than $887 billion in national consumer spending annually and supports 7.6 million jobs. The business of outdoor recreation, in turn, generates more than $65 billion in federal tax revenue and nearly $60 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Just last week, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis found that outdoor recreation accounts for 2.2 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product — more than electric utilities, mining, and agriculture. If LWCF were reauthorized permanently, imagine the cost-effective boost to recreation businesses and users around the country!

These funds need to be invested as they were intended — for too long, Congress has shortchanged access to our public lands by diverting the dollars that are supposed to go to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In fact, the LWCF has been raided year after year to pay for non-related government spending, leaving some of the best opportunities to improve recreational access and habitat on public lands on the table.

LWCF should receive full, dedicated funding now to ensure continued and robust investments in conservation and public access where it matters most. But, with authorization for the fund set to expire this Sunday, time is running out.

As Americans, we should remember what we have in common, not the least of which is our love of the outdoors, recreating outside, and enjoying our nation’s spacious landscapes, free-flowing waterways, and abundant wildlife.

The LWCF is another thing we all have in common – it is one of the great ideas that has a success story in every state. We urge Congress to follow the lead of Chairman Bishop and Ranking Member Grijalva and push partisanship aside long enough to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the LWCF.

No matter what else happens this fall, this would be a defining victory for all Americans who enjoy the outdoors, whatever the season.

Amy Roberts is executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. Whit Fosburgh is executive director of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

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