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Congress Set to Revive Land and Water Conservation Fund

Since 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has tapped revenues from offshore oil and gas development to preserve public lands, including Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Paul Hermans)
Since 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has tapped revenues from offshore oil and gas development to preserve public lands, including Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Paul Hermans)
February 21, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. – In a rare display of bipartisanship, last week the U.S. Senate passed a public-lands measure by a vote of 92 to 8 that includes indefinitely extending the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Now, all eyes are on members of the House, who could vote on the public-lands package as early as next week.

According to Tracy Stone-Manning, vice president for public lands for the National Wildlife Federation, more than 75 percent of Americans support the program, which uses fees from offshore oil and gas drilling to protect public lands.

"This one issue – the ability to bring people together around public lands, around protection of our wildlife – has punched through as something that is so uniquely and beautifully American that it has brought the Senate together, and we're hoping it does the House as well," said Stone-Manning.

For nearly 50 years, the program has helped Nebraskans create ball fields, swimming pools, playgrounds, picnic shelters and open spaces, and helped protect Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge and Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Critics of the program have pointed to a shift away from state grants and an emphasis on federal land acquisition, which they see as lost opportunities for extraction industries. Congress allowed the LWCF to expire in 2018.

Garett Reppenhagen, Rocky Mountain director of the Vet Voice Foundation, said most land acquisitions are used to create access points to lands owned by all Americans. Reppenhagen, who served in Kosovo and Iraq, added that camping, hiking and fishing on public lands have helped him readjust to civilian life.

"Military veterans use the outdoors to heal from our military trauma, from our experiences on the battlefield," he explained. "It helps with our post-traumatic stress disorder. And we use the outdoors to bond with our family and friends when we come home from long deployments."

Stone-Manning said the program also boosts local economies, especially in rural areas. Nebraska's $5 billion outdoor recreation industry supports 49,000 jobs and contributes more than $300 million annually to state and local tax coffers.

"Our population is growing; the need for open space and need for parks is growing with it," she pointed out. "So we desperately need this program to continue, so that our kids and our grandkids have the exact same access to parks and wildlife habitat that we have."

She said if the bill clears the House and makes it to the president's desk, it would be the biggest public-lands package in a decade.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - NE