Death-by-inertia for top conservation fund

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Deception Pass.

In Congress, it’s death-by-inertia. Rip an institution down to its studs and allow the clock to run out. Voila!

On July 1, the federal Export-Import Bank, a boon to Boeing and other Northwest employers, went gentle into that good night. (The Ex-Im homepage reads like a Depression-era sign: AUTHORITY HAS LAPSED).

And in less than seventy days, Congress’ make-policy-by-not-making policy may halt reauthorization of the country’s bipartisan, wildly popular Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

“Of course there is a real chance they will snuff the LWCF,” says U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia. “Why wouldn’t you believe that possible? This is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

The gang may want to improve its aim. For half a century, the LWCF has been the nation’s trademark outdoor recreation and conservation program. The formula is basic: Apply a portion of lease royalties from offshore oil development to pay for wildlife habitat, parks, trails and sustainable forests. No need for taxpayer dinero.

Royalties from public resources owned by all Americans are looped back into places such as Deception Pass State Park, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and the Mountains to Sound Greenway. Since President Kennedy requested its passage, the LWCF has helped 600 projects in Washington to the tune of $600 million.

So what gives?

“The Ex-Im comparison is perfectly valid (with LWCF),” Heck says. “Both are long-standing programs, which traditionally enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. And the termination of both was considered unthinkable until a short time ago. I don’t know what is going to happen, but if inertia is on the side of the anti’s—such as an affirmative requirement for reenactment—then they are advantaged.”

Gobsmacked greens never figured on death-by-inertia. And so, the scramble.

Fund supporters set up an online clock, a sort of fluid version of the doomsday timepiece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Wilderness Society developed a comprehensive map of all the LWCF projects nationwide. And congressional advocates, Republicans and Democrats alike, are sounding the alarm.

For years, the focus has been on full-LWCF funding. Despite the uptick in offshore development and increased conservation needs, 55 percent of the fund’s revenues have been siphoned to other interests. For 49 out of 50 years, Congress played the shift-money shell game, creating more project backlog.

Heck, who has championed revival the Ex-Im Bank (“It may live to see another day,” he said) credits lawmakers such as Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and Democrat Rep. Derek Kilmer with keeping LWCF’s hopes alive.

In June, Reichert and Kilmer joined with Sen. Maria Cantwell to call for permanent LWCF reauthorization. In a conference call, Reichert, co-chair of the House National Parks Caucus, said that last year’s passage of the Pratt River additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was his proudest achievement. He also noted that permanent reauthorization includes set-asides for sportsmen and public access.

The LWCF is more than Gary Snyder-ish landscapes where the Skagit River rises to meet you. Four million dollars from the fund’s Forest Legacy Program, for example, was recently green-lighted to underwrite a conservation easement on 20,000 acres of working forestland in Mason County. It’s phase one of a three-phase process to keep the forest in production. That translates into timber jobs, recreational access, and decent water quality.

Much of the LWCF narrative revolves around economics. In Washington, recreation generates $1.6 billion in state and local tax revenue, $7.1 billion in salaries and wages, and 227,000 direct jobs, according to a 2013 Outdoor Industry Association report. But the aesthetic, can’t-be-recreated-online windfall isn’t so bad either.

Cynics love to quote now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that, “you never let a serious crisis go to waste.” But it’s the second part of the quote that resonates. “It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

As politicians game-out various scenarios, the best case may be to hitch the LWCF to must-have legislation. It’s a strategy that also could resurrect the Ex-Im Bank.

With future political monkeying, lawmakers might consider the Emanuel mantra, and do those things that they thought they couldn’t do before, such as fully fund and permanently reauthorize the LWCF.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson