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Jewell wants Congress to reauthorize Land and Water Conservation Fund

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell makes the case for ongoing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center in Asheville on Aug. 6, 2014. She was joined by (L-R) Mike Murphy, director of state parks; Mike Leonard, chairman of The Conservation Fund; Mark Woods, Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent; Butch Blazer, U.S. deputy under secretary for Natural Resources & Environment; Fred Annand of The Nature Conservancy; and Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC. Paul Clark/Carolina Public Press

ASHEVILLE — U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell realized once again the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund during a hike Wednesday near Roan Mountain, she said.

Jewell, hiking prior to an appearance at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center in Asheville, said seeing so many hikers on Grassy Ridge near the Appalachian Trail underscored the importance of getting Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund next year and to grant it permanent funding. The fund is set to expire next year.

Created by Congress in 1964, the fund receives no tax money and is funded instead by revenues generated from a portion of federal oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.

“It was a brilliant piece of legislation,” Jewell told the crowd of conservationists, “that said when we take something from the land, like oil and gas … we should give something back to the land in the form of support for public lands and open spaces.”

Congress authorized funding at $900 million, but only once has the fund received the full amount. Instead, Congress has diverted $17 billion in fund money into the country’s general revenue stream, LWCF reports state. The fund has suffered especially in recent years, dropping to less than $100 million in 2007. Interior Department figures indicate that since 1987, annual funding has averaged $40 million.

Working in every state, the LWCF has protected 5 million acres of public land, including the Appalachian Trail and Grand Canyon National Park. The money helps create and protect national forests and parks like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It helps maintain Civil War battlefields, important historic sites and hunting and fishing lands. The money also matches local and state dollars to allow those governmental entities to fund similar projects such as baseball fields and parks. The LWCF estimates that the $3 billion it has awarded to states over the years has leveraged some $7 billion in non-federal matching funds.

The LWCF and the help it gives national, state and local conservation groups will cease to exist unless reauthorized by Congress. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, addressing the crowd at the visitors center with Jewell and other conservationists, is an original sponsor of a bill introduced last year that would grant the LWCF permanent, annual funding of $900 million. Sens. Kay Hagan, D-NC, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, are among the 42 cosponsoring senators (38 Democrats, two Republicans and two Independents). The bill was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in February 2013 and has remained there without action. Committee chair Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., will decide whether the bill moves out of committee.

“With 42 cosponsors, there’s probably not another piece of legislation in the U.S. Senate that’s got that many,” Burr told reporters after the comments concluded. “But it’s still not something that is achievable without the leadership that allows that bill to come up for a vote. That’s up to (U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid, which is always an open book.”

If Congress won’t pass the bill authorizing full funding, it will at least reauthorize the fund itself before the end of 2015, Burr predicted.

“I don’t think any member of Congress will let this expire,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can convince our colleagues that this is a wise investment. In the grand scheme of a $4 trillion budget, $900 million is not a lot of money.”

Jewell, on a four-state trip this week to drum up support for the fund, said that every dollar invested in federal land acquisition through the LWCF returns $4 to state and local communities.

North Carolina has benefitted from $230 million in LWCF money over the years, Jewell said. The money added 17,000 acres to the Pisgah National Forest. She said she believes the Grassy Ridge tract, a 163-acre parcel that if developed would spoil the view from and experience of the Appalachian Trail, will be purchased and added to federal land next year “as long as we get a budget through Congress that supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

LWCF money is “extremely important” to Trout Unlimited because the money helps protect the land along streams and creeks, said Damon Hearne, Southeast conservation coordinator of Trout Unlimited. Trout fishing, tourism and related industries are a $174 million-a-year business in North Carolina, he said.

LWCF money would help the U.S. Forest Service buy a tract of land inside public land on the North Mills River that Trout Unlimited helped the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy secure, Hearne said. “If the Forest Service will acquire that piece of land and put it in the public trust, we’ll have secured the fishery and public access for mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking. And we’ll have prevented incompatible development on top of a trout stream inside the national forest.”

LWCF funding helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put together Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge, a network of bogs in North Carolina and Tennessee that comprise one of the rarest ecosystems in the country, said Janet Mizzi, USFWS field supervisor in Asheville.

LWCF money helps North Carolina buy “what we call ‘threatened treasures,’” said Stevin Westcott, a U.S. Forest Service public information officer in Asheville. Those “treasures” are prioritized into a list of purchases the Forest Service, working with conservation organizations like the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, would like to make to protect land near existing federal forestland, he said.

“There are few places as beautiful as this place you get to live” in, Jewell said Wednesday afternoon, telling the crowd about the six weeks she spent camping and visiting her sister here in the late 1970s.

“I got to appreciate the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway and what this area is known for,” she said. “This community recognizes that outdoor recreation and tourism are a legitimate, important part of the economy of North Carolina. You recognize that public lands are something to be treasured and that bring a lot more people into your state.”

Correction: The story has been corrected to reflect that trout fishing, not farming, was including when estimating the $174 million-a-year business.

Paul Clark

Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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