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Let’s restore Conservation Fund

In photographer David Ramsey’s picture presentation on the natural beauty of Rocky Fork as a gateway to Tennessee with its water features and rich wildlife, two figures are noted as the heroes who made preservation of this, now public-lands treasure possible: President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Lamar Alexander.
President Kennedy, on Valentine’s Day 1963, had proposed a Land and Water Conservation Fund as a national legacy of public recreation areas and facilities.
After temporary “bridge” loan monies from the Conservation Fund national organization, along with private-donor, Forest-Service and state sources made initial purchase of the Rocky Fork tract possible in 2008, Alexander led the effort in Congress to secure more than $30 million from the LWCF to assure its permanent acquisition and protection.
The fund was enacted by Congress in 1965, “with vigorous bipartisan support in both Houses,” as the National Park Service website states. Raising the funding level several times as need for outdoor recreation areas increased with growing population, an amending law in 1977 set the authorized annual funding at $900 million, a portion going to federal park and recreation lands acquisition, and matching funds going to state and local governments.
Unfortunately, as a recent report by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation indicates, the Congress has habitually made far lower budget appropriations, shifting most of the funds to other budgetary purposes.
The maximum actual allocation to LWCF of $369 million was given in 1978, as TDEC reported. With a sharp funding decrease in recent years, the LWCF allotment was only $52 million in FY 2014.
Yet these funds do not burden the taxpayer, as their source is a small fraction of the royalties that energy companies pay for offshore drilling leases. Thus an important natural resource is “recycled back” to public usage, as the Park Service notes — while one resource is being used, another is protected.
The LWCF has been one of the most successful and popular conservation programs in modern U.S. history. It has funded rail-to-trail projects nationwide and paid for most of the Appalachian Trail. It has protected nearly 5 million acres of federal lands, and through $4 billion in grants to the states, has supported state parks and community playgrounds and ballfields, historic homes and battlefield sites, forests and fish hatcheries, wildlife refuges and numerous other open-space and public-use areas. Fully 98 percent of counties in the U.S. have amenities such as these, created with LWCF grants.
Though its sunset date, in September 2015, was well known and anticipated, and despite continued bipartisan support for it, the Congress has now allowed the LWCF to expire.
This would eliminate an essential source of non-taxpayer funding for places and programs such as Rocky Fork, the Cherokee National Forest, Cumberland Gap Historic Park and Roan Mountain State Park, and other valuable open-space areas important for land conservation and recreation needs in the 21st century.
We should encourage our Rocky-Fork conservation hero, Alexander, and our other members of Congress to help restore the Land and Water Conservation Fund.