Commentary: Keep nature within reach by investing in Utah’s parks and trails

Rep. Rob Bishop has been called a lot of things by the environmental community, but late this session of Congress he defied labels and voiced his support for reauthorizing one of the most important, if underappreciated, conservation laws, the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Bishop’s pursuit of a bipartisan deal to sustain this important program was a watershed moment for a town renowned for gridlock and on an issue that had previously and repeatedly died on the vine due to the congressman’s past opposition.

This important program, which leverages fees on offshore oil and gas development — at zero cost to taxpayers — has invested in and protected more than 41,000 urban parks, open spaces, wilderness areas and other public lands throughout the United States.

Recognizing this, Bishop and his peer across the aisle and conservation champion, Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, found common ground and passed out of their committee a deal to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

This moment — heralded as a miracle in some circles — was as brilliant as it was brief, with the deal languishing in the House and the Land and Water Conservation Fund expiring several short days later.

Congress then recessed for the election and the Land and Water Conservation Fund has remained in limbo even as Congress reconvened this week for the lame-duck session of Congress.

It’s time for Utah’s elected leaders to keep fighting for the bipartisan deal Bishop stands behind.

After all, Utah has been blessed with some of the most spectacular public lands in our nation. They’re the envy of the other states and countries around the world. That’s why awe-inspiring places like Arches National Park, Lake Powell and Goblin Valley State Park bring thousands of tourists each year to Utah.

But these natural wonders aren’t the only way Utahns engage with the outdoors. Enjoying our wildlife heritage and enjoying nature don’t always require a visit to the backcountry. Often these activities occur at the places families go on weeknights or weekends.

These playgrounds, community trails and ballfields are some of the most important places to introduce kids to nature and to enjoy the outdoors. Many of these community resources have only been possible thanks to the now-expired Land and Water Conservation Fund.

For example, it invested more than $200,000 in 2011 in the development of the Fairview City Sports Park. This park, in Fairview, includes a playground, basketball and tennis courts, and other facilities aimed at getting families outdoors. The same goes for Salt Hollow Park, which the Land and Water Conservation Fund invested $150,000 in 2012 into Salt Hollow Park in Hyrum to build fields, install playground and construct picnic pavilions. The Land and Water Conservation Fund also invested $15.3 million in the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which Salt Lake City-area families use to get outdoors and enjoy nature within reach of their communities.

These community resources and common-sense investments are just the tip of iceberg for the immense impact this 50-year-old conservation program has had in Utah and across the nation. Given this impact, you would think that the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund would be certain — but it has been anything but.

Lawmakers, including Bishop, have at times wrongly targeted the program as a slush fund, when the only “special interest” the Land and Water Conservation Fund serves is that of everyday Utahns.

This common-sense program has had real impacts throughout Utah — and Bishop acknowledged as much to The Salt Lake Tribune in describing why he acted: “This bill … ensures that Congress adequately funds the lands it already owns and realigns the fund back to its original goal of ensuring that hunters, fishermen and families have access to recreational activities.”

That’s something the rest of Utah’s delegation can agree upon — and why they all should resolve to get the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanently reauthorized and fully funded this year.

State Rep. Mark Archuleta Wheatley represents House District 35 in the Utah Legislature. He also serves as an advisory board member of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO).