Congress Must Move to Renew Federal Fund Vital for Watershed Protection

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is set to expire on September 30, and Congress has made no move to revive it. That’s a mistake, as the fund is important to protect landscapes that deliver essential water supplies.

Written by Jay Ziegler Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Felipe Montiel, of San Marino, Calif., fishes at Lake Elsinore as the Holy Fire burns in the Cleveland National Forest in August. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program funded by offshore energy leases, could help reduce wildfire risk and protect watersheds critical to drinking water supplies. But Congress needs to renew the program first.Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has protected national parks and open spaces in every corner of the United States. In many ways, it is the most important conservation and recreation program in the U.S. But it will expire at the end of this month, unless Congress acts to reauthorize it prior to that.

We need the LWCF to protect iconic outdoor places, increase public access to public lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor activities, and create parks for our communities.

Today, there is additional urgency. We also need LWCF investments to protect and restore critical watersheds to increase the reliability of water supplies for people and nature.

Across the West, catastrophic wildfires are a call for action that we must reduce fire threats across our national forests and surrounding landscapes. These fires have been made much more likely by forests that are in an unhealthy, unnatural condition – the result of years of misguided management, as well as a changing climate. In some places, there are too many small living trees, packed too closely together. In others, there is an epidemic of dead trees from drought, insects and disease.

This combination of conditions has created a forest health crisis. There is now a constant threat of catastrophic fire in California’s Sierra Nevada forests, the source of 60 percent of the state’s water supply.

There are hopeful signs we can address this crisis. In California, the state legislature recently approved a five-year investment strategy to drive ecologically based forest management, which includes careful thinning of overly dense forests and the use of controlled burns to reduce excess forest fuels. This strategy can deliver cost-effective tools to promote healthier forests that are more resilient to drought and wildfire. Additionally, in March, congressional action led to comprehensive reform of federal borrowing practices to battle wildfires that will take effect in federal fiscal year 2020.

Collectively, these state and federal actions will help turn the tide and are key steps toward increasing the pace and scale of ecologically based forest management.

Important Role in Watershed Management

But without significant change in how we manage our forests, we will continue to lose vast swathes of trees and the many benefits healthy forests provide. The LWCF can play a key role in that change. Highly fragmented forest land ownership patterns – in some cases, dating back to the time of the Lincoln administration – have long been an obstacle to better forest management to reduce the risk of unnatural, catastrophic wildfires. Strategic LWCF investments in voluntary transactions – to redraw the lines of forest ownership in ways that make sense – can facilitate proactive forest management at a landscape scale to improve forest health and reduce risks to public safety.

By applying all tools available – accelerated state funding to advance ecological forest management; more action by the U.S. Forest Service to increase the pace of forest restoration; and using LWCF as a tool for strategic voluntary transactions to simplify and improve forest ownership patterns – we can protect vital watersheds in the West that are the source of the clean and safe drinking water we all rely upon.

No New Taxes

It is important to note that the LWCF does not use taxpayer dollars. Instead, it is funded by a portion of federal revenues collected from offshore energy development. For more than 50 years, LWCF has reinvested those funds into protecting the natural, cultural and recreation heritage of the U.S.

But LWCF is set to expire at the end of the month unless Congress acts.

The time to act is now – to maintain the LWCF and protect our forested watersheds. The program’s legacy includes everything from iconic parks, wildlife areas and historic sites of national significance to local parks and playgrounds essential to quality of life in many communities. We cannot afford to lose LWCF and put at risk the U.S.’s natural heritage and so many other public values – including protecting our most important watersheds.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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