Growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., I was surrounded by parks. My family enjoyed hiking, camping and frequent picnics, and trips were almost always centered around nature. Summer afternoons were spent feeding ducks at Deeprun Park and hopping rock to rock on the the James River. These small moments in open spaces have had a big impact on who I am today.
I’ve always thanked my parents for inspiring my love of nature, and I still do (thanks, Mom and Dad). That said, for so long, I had no idea just how much I should’ve also been thanking those legislators who came up with the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
LWCF is the federal government’s primary funding tool for public lands, and I’ve spent the last six months working to keep it properly funded. Go to Yellowstone National Park — or your local youth ballpark — and ask anyone there if they realize that LWCF is America’s most successful conservation and recreation program. It’s unlikely they’d know that the shared spaces we enjoy -- from our parks (city, state and national) and forests to wildlife refuges and other public lands -- are so great because of royalties from offshore drilling that the LWCF mandates for those open spaces.
That said, it’s been undervalued and drastically underfunded its entire life span. Congress has diverted $22 billion, which is more than half of the program’s intended funding, away from LWCF.
But there is hope for a brighter LWCF future. Legislation currently pending in Congress would permanently and fully fund the program, ensuring that future generations will have access to the outdoor spaces that I have enjoyed. These federal bills are among the most popular and bipartisan — and they are common sense. The money intended for LWCF should be spent on LWCF.
I understood the importance of the program from the day I started my job, but recently I wanted to get a more intimate read on what LWCF meant. To that end, while traveling this week from Iredell, N.C. to Hanover, Va., I stopped at as many LWCF-funded sites as I could.
My journey started in my boyfriend David’s hometown of Iredell, N.C. The first thing I did when I arrived was research all of the sites close enough to visit. As I started listing off the parks that had been built, upgraded or maintained by the LWCF to David and his family, they began reminiscing about each location. There was the golf course nestled next to their first house; the park where David broke his collarbone; and the baseball diamond where his little brother won the state championship.
On Saturday we drove an hour to Stone Mountain. It’s David’s favorite hiking spot. His family has been doing it for years. There are breathtaking views and even a waterfall — all without terribly steep terrain. After our six-mile trek, a picnic and lots of pictures, I checked on a whim if the trail we traversed was funded by LWCF. Of course, it was. It was a great reminder of the breadth of the legislation’s impact.
But that wasn’t the end of my little experiment. After a weekend in North Carolina, I travelled to my hometown and parents’ house. I went through the same process with my family. I thought about the time my sister fell from the big tree at Echo Lake Park or when my brother had his birthday party at General Sheppard Crump Park. I went back and visited all my favorite places from childhood that not so coincidentally were funded by LWCF, and I experienced all the same glee from these beautiful spaces as I did when I was a child.
My mom and I brought our dog, Oscar, to Pole Green Park. There he was able to run and play with about 15 other dogs in a fenced dog park. He also tried his hand at this wonderful full agility course. While the seesaw scared him, Oscar was able to complete the jumps like a practiced champ. Afterwards, he was panting and tired (no easy feat), so we made our way to the site’s skate park where I zipped around on my skateboard like a kid.
My mom and I had never been to Green Pole Park before. But this great open space provide a perfect venue to make new memories and appreciate the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Along with the new, we also returned to some of our old haunts. Deep Run Park was not only the closest open space to my childhood home, but was also the closest to my heart. This is where I played in my first soccer league, and where we would spend countless summer afternoons. It was also where my brother would antagonize the geese. The playground had completely changed. It was updated with squishy flooring, a new slide and a great green dragon. My mom and I reminisced about how easily I would race through the monkey bars or how she would have to scold me for climbing on the roof of the old playground.
By the end of the day, it was hard for me to think of a park or outdoor space from my childhood that wasn’t a benefactor of LWCF funding. Parks provide a place for organized sports, for kids to spend excess energy, and, most importantly, a space for someone to fall in love with nature. I felt like I was unmasking the superhero in a Marvel movie. The conclusion was undeniable: All along, LWCF had been shaping the places that shaped me.