BRUNSWICK — On Wednesday, the House Committee on Appropriations meets to decide what the Land and Water Conservation Fund is worth. This source of funding for America’s great outdoors is nothing less than the nation’s most important program to conserve irreplaceable lands and improve outdoor recreation opportunities. Whether it be the Rocky Mountains in the West, the green forests of the Northeast or the tranquil vistas of our Southwestern deserts, LWCF has been the most successful conservation program in U.S. history for the protection of and access to federal public lands, state and local parks and other outdoor places for the benefit of all Americans.

After a protracted effort in Congress, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was permanently reauthorized March 19 as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act (Dingell Act). But astonishingly, days later the Trump administration proposed a budget for fiscal year 2020 that included draconian cuts to LWCF.

In Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine’s 1st District and her colleagues on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up a bill to determine how much funding LWCF is to receive next year. The fund is authorized to receive $900 million annually, but it has rarely received the full amount. As a National Park Service employee for 34 years – from 1978 to 2012 – I’d like to tell you from experience what the Land and Water Conservation Fund has meant to Americans.

In Maine, LWCF has invested approximately $190 million over the past five decades, helping to ensure recreational access for outdoor activities in places like Acadia National Park and Preserve, the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. LWCF state assistance grants have further supported hundreds of projects across Maine’s state and local parks and forests, including Rangeley Lake State Park, Bigelow Preserve and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which features a world-class canoe journey on one of the few rivers where downstream runs north. All of this great work done by LWCF over the years plays an important role in growing Maine’s lucrative outdoor recreation economy, valued at over $8 billion annually.

In my career at the Park Service, I was fortunate to be of service in many outstanding outdoor venues, from Yellowstone and Sequoia-Kings Canyon in the West to the Everglades and coastal parks in the East. As deputy superintendent of Cape Cod National Seashore, we welcomed some 4 million visitors each year to enjoy the seashore’s beaches, fishing opportunities, nature trails, historic buildings and beautiful vistas looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. Land and Water Conservation Fund money played an important role in enhancing the recreation experience for visitors by keeping private land areas inside and near this very popular park free from development.

Remarkably, to work its magic as the principal source of federal dollars for protecting land in America’s national parks, forests and other public landscapes, and ensuring recreational opportunities for Americans in every state in the nation, LWCF does it all at no cost to taxpayers. The fund gets its money from a small portion of the royalties paid by oil and gas companies to drill offshore. The money is unquestionably well spent; outdoor recreation, conservation and historic preservation activities contribute more than $887 billion annually to the U.S. economy and support 7.6 million jobs.

I thank Rep. Pingree for her leadership on and support for LWCF and its full funding, and encourage her to work with colleagues in the House and Senate to achieve that. The fund has been much more than an economic boon for the nation – at its heart, LWCF enables an ever-increasing number of Americans to participate in the life-enhancing experiences afforded by nature and the outdoors.

So how much is all that worth? I’m not sure what LWCF contributes to our well-being can be counted. But I am sure that if Congress votes to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually, it will be one of the best investments this country has ever made.

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