Congress must seize conservation opportunity

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An unfortunate, and little noticed, casualty of the present political gridlock in Washington, D.C. is the protection of our nation’s outdoor recreational resources. Budgets for the operation and maintenance of America’s iconic National Park system have been slashed in the interest of balancing the federal budget and parks are only part of this tragedy. With so many of us relying on public lands for our quality of life and our livelihoods, ill-considered cuts to conservation programs only make hard times worse for most Americans.
One small ray of hope for breaking the Congressional gridlock is the Transportation Bill (S. 1813) that passed the U.S. Senate passed last month, with strong bi-partisan support. The bill authorized $700 million a year for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. New Mexico Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, who understand the importance of conservation, voted for S. 1813.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was enacted by Congress nearly 50 years ago to help protect our nation’s land, water, and recreational opportunities.  LWCF is authorized to receive $900 million per year, largely from U.S. Treasury receipts stemming from federal Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leases. It makes good economic sense to reinvest a small fraction of these leasing revenues in parks, trails, other recreational facilities, and open space. The fund has protected natural and cultural resources in every state and nearly every county in the country.
The fund, however, has been chronically short-changed by Congress in the annual budget process, diverting two-thirds of the authorization to non-conservation purposes. During the last Congress, there were even efforts by elements in the House to defund it entirely. Unfortunately, this failed anti-conservation effort was supported by Representative Pearce.
Despite these challenges, LWCF has helped protect many places dear to northern New Mexicans, including Bandelier, Aztec Ruins, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monuments, and Pecos National Historic Park. LWCF funds have also helped conserve the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and Ute Mountain in Taos County protecting critical wildlife habitat and Rio Grande water quality.  
Just as important, this program has provided funding to our state parks and to enhance ball fields, town parks, and other recreational facilities across New Mexico, including in Los Alamos, Española, Santa Clara Pueblo, Taos, Peñasco, Questa, and Chama.
LWCF also benefits New Mexico’s economy. I know this first hand as I have operated a rafting company in Taos for the last 33 years. My employees and I rely on protected public lands to provide really high-quality outdoor experiences to our fellow residents and visitors.
So we especially understand how LWCF funds that have come to New Mexico over the years — $240 million in total — are important to the attractions that keep visitors coming to our state. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, active outdoor recreation delivers $3.8 billion annually to New Mexico’s economy, supports 47,000 jobs and generates $184 million in tax revenue.
 In a refreshingly bipartisan way, the U.S. Senate demonstrated a continuing commitment to our nation’s land and water by their vote for LWCF funding in the Transportation Bill. We hope the entire Congress might do the same, as the House and Senate work out their differences on this bill.
Many thanks are due to Congressmen Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich for helping keep the Land and Water Conservation Fund afloat. We hope Representative Pearce will join them, so that the natural and cultural wonders of New Mexico remain intact for our children and grandchildren to enjoy, as well as for the continued health of our region’s outdoor recreation economy.
Steve Harris represents  Far-Flung Adventures in Taos.