We know about the importance of public lands. They benefit plants, wildlife, and people across the country. A lot of acreage and infrastructure like trails and ball fields were funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Our state Michigan Director Nathan Murphy shares a story about why the LWCF is so important.
Lately I’ve been running most evenings along the White Pine Trail; a mostly paved trail running 92 miles from just north of Grand Rapids up into Cadillac, Michigan. It’s been a great chance to get out and enjoy nature waking up this spring from blooming wildflowers to frogs and birds calling. I also see families walking and riding bikes, other runners, and people walking their dogs. Especially during social distancing, the trail provides people a chance to get out and reconnect with nature and the other people in their homes.
During one run I wondered if the White Pine Trail benefitted from Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) money. I checked an extensive list of projects funded in Michigan, and sure enough, grants helped create the trail. The LWCF is federal money from oil and gas drilling revenue on lands where the federal government owns the mineral rights. That is, we the people own that oil and gas, and when a company drills and sells it they pay us and the money goes into the LWCF. For over 50 years the money has funded projects and land acquisition in federal lands like Sleeping Bear Dunes, state lands like Hartwick Pines State Park, and local lands like county and city parks. Over the years, more than 42,000 grants have been awarded across the country.
The LWCF has funded projects from one corner of Michigan to the other. Literally. From the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park along Lake Superior and the border with Wisconsin down to the William C. Sterling State Park on Lake Erie down by Monroe near the Ohio border. That’s almost a ten hour drive with a lot of public lands in between. And a lot of those lands have been helped by money from the LWCF. I’ve gone backcountry backpacking in the Porkies, and raced a triathlon in Sterling, underscoring how the LWCF helps public lands provide a wealth of different opportunities.
The LWCF projects not only benefit us. Those public lands often provide crucial habitat for wildlife and plants. It can be as small as a tiny urban park, or as big as a vast national forest. Different animals and plants with different habitat requirements find a home in the range of public lands across our country. The birds at your feeder may rely on public lands as they migrate, and the butterflies in your garden may rely on public lands as an important source of food for caterpillars and adults.
Unfortunately, Congress has routinely raided the LWCF to spend on other uses, to the point where less than half of the funds have actually been spent on public lands through the LWCF. The good news is, by the end of February of 2020, Congress looked set to pass legislation that would guarantee all the funding stays in the LWCF, and the funding reauthorization would be permanent. It would not be subject to the whims of any annual budget cycle. The bill had broad bipartisan support. It doesn’t matter where people sit on the political spectrum, Americans value our public lands and what they provide. The President encouraged its passage, saying he would sign it. Then the pandemic broke wide open in March and, rightfully so, took up all the oxygen in Washington, D.C. Progress on the LWCF legislation hit a brick wall.
Discussions continue in D.C., and we continue to advocate for passage of the legislation. Now more than ever, Americans want to engage more with nature on their public lands. States are reporting substantial increases in public land usage during social distancing as people seek the rejuvenation, sense of calm, and simply time spent safely outside the home that nature provides. North Carolina is reporting visitation rates two to three times higher than what they usually see this time of year at state forests. Minnesota is seeing a 120% increase over past visitation rates to their state parks and recreation areas. While spring continues to blossom around the United States, these trends will likely continue.
The legislative language is ready to go. The money is already there. It has broad support in Congress, the White House, and with Americans. We need to continue to invest in our public lands for the benefits they provide to us, and the habitats they provide for plants and wildlife. Congress needs to get the job done and pass it. Our public lands are a multitude of gems scattered across the country. Passing the permanent, full funding of the LWCF would reflect our values for these gems.