CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The July Fourth holiday is upon us, and in West Virginia we are looking forward to cooling off in our beautiful forests and streams. In fact, you may be thinking right now of your favorite place to fish, hunt, hike, raft or mountain bike. I know I am!
And I'm also thinking about the future of our lands and waters. I would like my children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the Monongahela National Forest, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the New River Gorge National River and other spectacular public lands during the summer holidays in years to come.
This is why I am greatly disappointed by the U.S. Congress' recent failure to invest in the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a principle source of funding used to conserve West Virginia's most important wildlife habitats, forests and places for people to hunt, fish and recreate.
The Senate-passed version of the transportation bill included a provision to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for two years at $700 million a year. In addition, this provision expanded access for hunting, fishing and recreational activities.
During U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives negotiations over the final provisions of a transportation bill agreement, this provision was dropped entirely from the bill at the request of a group led by a vocal minority within the House. The failure to include this critical provision comes less than a week after recent legislation produced by the House interior appropriations subcommittee cut the Land and Water Conservation Fund by 80 percent to historic low levels.
Polls consistently show that the conservation of our nation's natural resources is widely supported by Americans across political spectrums. A recent bipartisan poll clearly demonstrates that even with strong concern about the federal budget deficit, voters reject cutting funding for conservation programs and express strong support for continuing to dedicate funding specifically to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The actions by the House clearly do not reflect the views or long-term interests of the American people. The Senate, in contrast, did follow the wishes of the American people when it voted in support of the provision. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Joe Manchin deserve our applause for their support!
The Conservation Fund is popular for a reason. It is funded by royalties paid for offshore oil and gas leases in waters that belong to all Americans. Those revenues -- not taxpayer dollars -- are used to protect other important resources for the benefit of the American public. These include national parks, forests, trails, historic sites, wildlife refuges, working lands and state and local parks and community ball fields. Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars have supported projects in all 50 states and are places enjoyed by hundreds of millions of visitors every year, such as Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and others.
The places conserved by the Land and Water Conservation Fund open the door to recreational opportunities, protect and enhance our natural and cultural heritage, and support healthy communities and a vibrant economy. Outdoor recreation drives $646 billion in direct consumer spending and 6.1 million American jobs.
It is no surprise, then, that there is now an extensive backlog of projects awaiting support by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The U.S. Senate provision to dedicate money to the fund was an opportunity to begin to address the backlog of projects from California's Pacific coast to the Appalachian Mountains.
It is too late to include funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the transportation bill. However, it is not too late for the U.S. Congress to make critical future investments in the fund.
As you fish in your favorite trout stream or hike along your favorite trail this summer, I encourage you to consider the future of West Virginia's and the country's special lands and waters and urge West Virginia's senators and representatives to address the need for consistent and reliable Land and Water Conservation Funding before the 112th Congress adjourns at the end of this year.
Steptoe is chairman of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.