CLEAR-ing The Way For Open Space

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

The Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the federal government’s main program for open space preservation. Now, after decades of being underfunded, it may finally realize its full conservation potential through a bill approved by a key committee in the House of Representatives.

Established in 1964, the LWCF is officially authorized to spend $900 million each year to protect and enhance America’s natural lands, including parks, historic sites, forests, wildlife refuges and outdoor recreation facilities.

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However, it has been fully funded just once in the past 46 years! Revenue is supposed to come from offshore mineral and oil leases (which have averaged almost $9 billion a year over the last five years), but Congress routinely diverts it elsewhere in the sprawling federal budget. As a result there is a massive backlog of preservation projects and capital improvements at national parks, wildlife refuges and more.

LWCF funds bear fruit in two ways: by saving lands directly, and by enabling states to leverage their open space preservation dollars with matching federal dollars. Just as your local open space fund partners with New Jersey’s Garden State Preservation Trust (GSPT) Fund, New Jersey partners with federal programs funded by the LWCF.

Full, stable funding for the LWCF is the Holy Grail of open space preservation … long sought-after, elusive, and full of promise. Just consider what the LWCF – even at substantially underfunded levels – has accomplished in this state we’re in over the years, thanks in large measure to the efforts of New Jersey’s Congressional delegation:

  • Funds were used to directly preserve five national wildlife refuges, the Morristown National Historic Park, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Appalachian Trail and many national historic sites.
  • Land in the Highlands has been protected under the Highlands Conservation Act, and LWCF funding has preserved land in the Pinelands National Reserve as well.
  • Matching LWCF grants have helped fund locally-driven state, county and local park projects, as well as trails and recreation facilities in every corner of the state.

Important energy legislation, the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009 (or CLEAR Act), would allow the LWCF to finally achieve its full potential. As passed by the House Natural Resources Committee, this legislation would provide the LWCF with dedicated funding at its authorized level of $900 million, meaning no more diversions.

N.J. Congressional Members Rush Holt (12th Dist.) and Frank Pallone (6th Dist.) deserve special thanks from voters. They cast key votes in committee to help defeat amendments that would have removed or weakened the CLEAR Act.

As the effort to fully fund LWCF moves forward, it will need the support of the rest of our Congressional delegation. New Jersey’s U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg is a co-sponsor of similar legislation in the Senate, and we hope that he and Senator Robert Menendez will continue their longstanding leadership in support of the LWCF.

The tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the critical importance of using these dollars for the protection of our nation’s natural resource heritage. Recent polling found 85 percent of voters think that it’s more important than ever that funds from offshore oil and gas drilling be used to preserve natural lands. Now is the time for the LWCF to become all that it was meant to be.

Please contact your local Congressional representative, and Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, to urge them to ensure that full, dedicated funding for LWCF is ultimately included in any energy legislation adopted by Congress this year. To find your elected officials, go to www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml.

You can learn more about the LWCF at www.lwcfcoalition.org. And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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