Commentary: Congress’ to-do list: Vote for conservation

Lawmakers now back in Washington have a long list of to-dos before the end of the year — including two policies that together form the backbone of conservation in America.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Farm Bill represent the lion’s share of our nation’s efforts to protect lands and waters from irreversible loss due to development and other uses. LWCF does its good work primarily on public lands while the Farm Bill focuses on private lands, but the benefits of both are similar for all Americans.

Both policies expired in September. Since then, voters have gone to the polls, and the message they sent was clear: they value conservation. Voters of diverse political backgrounds came together to approve more than $10.6 billion to help secure healthy lands, waters, and wildlife and vibrant communities for generations to come

The representatives in Congress who represent these voters should turn their message into action by acting quickly to renew LWCF and pass a new Farm Bill with strong conservation and forestry provisions. Failing to act would leave us without the means to preserve landscapes near national parks, help farmers make their lands more productive and sustainable, expand outdoor recreational opportunities or support local economies through conservation.

With just a few weeks left before the 115th Congress ends, lawmakers have no time to waste if they want to continue a treasured, long-standing and bipartisan tradition of encouraging conservation.

For more than 50 years, LWCF has conserved public lands and waters at no cost to the American taxpayer, expanding public access to lakes and streams, building local parks and trails, conserving working forests and protecting national parks’ landscapes.

The fund is authorized to receive a small percentage of offshore oil and gas revenues — up to $900 million per year, but most of these funds have historically been diverted elsewhere, at the program itself has never been permanently authorized. These two factors create uncertainty for landowners that want to conserve their properties and subsequently limits the potential benefits of the program.

A growing bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers are pushing to end this cycle of uncertainty with legislation to permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF, and action to do so before the end of this Congress would help send the message that conservation of public lands remains a nonpartisan and important priority.

Likewise, the Farm Bill is the most important legislation for conserving private lands in the United States, providing landowners with the tools to protect their lands and their way of life. Farmers, ranchers and other landowners depend on the certainty of the Farm Bill’s conservation programs for the long-term planning of their operations.

Negotiators in the House and Senate have been busy working to reconcile the differences between their dueling versions of a new Farm Bill, and while there has been a lot of progress, it is crucial the final version restore funding for permanent conservation easements and include strong support for forests.

Foundational environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act ensure strong, healthy rural communities and economies, and the Farm Bill should not undermine these laws in any way.

Renewing LWCF and passing a new Farm Bill with strong conservation and forestry provisions are two important wins Congress can deliver for conservation. Lawmakers have the support of their constituents, the urgent need for action that will benefit us all, and a clear path for getting both policies renewed.

Time is the one thing they lack.

Failing to act on them before the end for the year could set both policies back months or longer, further delaying the conservation benefits of both. It would be a terrible shame to let all the progress on LWCF and Farm Bill during this Congress go to waste by not renewing them before the end of the year.

For the protection of our lands, waters and the benefits their conservation bring to families, communities and our economy, now is the time to vote for conservation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richie Jones is director of The Nature Conservancy in Delaware.

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