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West Virginian: Don't Mess With Land and Water Fund

Some West Virginians, including local officials, say they are frustrated that Congress has failed to reauthorize a conservation fund with long-standing bipartisan support. Beth Little
Some West Virginians, including local officials, say they are frustrated that Congress has failed to reauthorize a conservation fund with long-standing bipartisan support. Beth Little
November 23, 2015

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - Congress' failure to reauthorize a popular land and water fund is drawing widespread scorn from West Virginians. Since 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has taken money from offshore oil and gas royalties. It gives grants to protect and improve everything from Civil War battlefields and federal wilderness areas to state parks and city pools.

Fayette County Commissioner Matt Wender is frustrated Congress is failing to fund a program crucial to ongoing efforts to protect local tourism.

"If you were going down the Gauley River, as many, many people do in the fall, there is clear-cutting along the banks going up the sides of the gorge, and there are housing developments that go down to the river," says Wender. "The value of that asset needs to be protected and is at risk."

Part of the delay is a push by some in Congress to shift much of the money to other uses, they say need it more. Wender and others say that could gut the program.

Utah Republican Rob Bishop chairs a house subcommittee crucial to the LWCF. Bishop said he opposes the federal government buying up more land for parks and forests. He's backing a bill he describes as expanding the LWCF's scope. It could shift land-buying money to local governments and training for oil and gas workers.

Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for lands with The Wilderness Society, says they favor a bipartisan alternative that would permanently fund the LWCF to do what's long been popular in both parties. He says don't fix it if it ain't broke.

"In an incredibly polarized world where Congress isn't doing much, you see this bipartisan cooperation," says Rowsome. "And it shows you that this is a special issue, and one that shouldn't be caught up in the politics."

According to Wender, tourism is worth $60 million to Fayette County each year. He says the fund has helped them make an important and difficult economic transition.

"It became a significant part of our county and softened the blow of the loss of coal jobs," says Wender. "It's a part of our future that we've got to protect and develop further."

The last authorization for the fund expired at the end of September.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV