On Wednesday, two of America’s most influential and successful environmental statues turn 50 years old. For half a century, the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act have slowly entered the fabric of communities across the country to the point that the wild lands and recreational areas they created are taken for granted. However this anniversary comes at a turning point for both statutes, as congressional inaction and partisan politicking have put both at risk of becoming obsolete, or even extinct, in the near future.
The Wilderness Act, designed to preserve wild places from any development — the highest level of protection accorded to federal lands — has been neglected by recent Congresses. Every Congress since 1966 designated new federal lands to the wilderness system up until the 112th Congress, which in 2011 and 2012 actually reduced the size of the wilderness system. In spite of recent setbacks, after starting at nine million acres, national wilderness areas now cover 110 million acres. These areas include Ansel Adams Wilderness, California; Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, Montana; and Great Gulf Wilderness, New Hampshire to name a few.
“Every president since 1964 has signed a bunch of wilderness bills; Ronald Reagan alone approved 43,” wrote the Editorial Board of the New York Times this week. “Congress has sent President Obama a grand total of two.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCF) established what amounts to the country’s most effective means of protecting natural, historic, and cultural treasures. Funded by offshore oil and gas development, the LWCF has supported more than 40,000 state and local recreation projects and helped project more than seven million acres of land, including postcard destinations like Grand Canyon National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
In 2015 the LWCF is up for reauthorization for the second time in its 50-year history, and without congressional action it will expire. Even when Congress is working across the aisle, the legislative body rarely finances the LWCF to the authorized level of $900 million. Last year Congress appropriated $234 million and this year the hope is for closer to $300 million. The remaining balance, which does not come from taxpayer dollars but offshore oil and gas royalties, is raided by Congress and spent on things other than conservation.
“In every state, the LWCF has helped fund everything from ball fields to trails to certain federal lands projects,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow and director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. “Without that stream of investment there will be a big slowdown in park construction in the U.S. starting next year. This is a big risk for communities that want open spaces and an outdoor economy.”
Regarding the Wilderness Act, Lee-Ashley said that in the last five years Congress has basically stopped passing bills to create new wilderness because of “a handful of folks in Congress who are philosophically opposed to wilderness protection.”
The recent “Languishing Lands” report goes over some of the bills that have been stalled in Congress for years and sometimes decades. For example, 23 years ago legislation was introduced to permanently protect Colorado’s Browns Canyon, a popular whitewater rafting and kayaking destination. Since then, 13 separate bills to conserve the landscape have failed to pass Congress despite having widespread public support.
“The threat to the Wilderness Act is from non-use,” said Lee-Ashley.
Similar to his executive efforts with the Climate Action Plan and proposed EPA existing power plant carbon rules, Obama has been making independent efforts to conserve land in the face of Congress’s neglect. Using a statute called the Antiquities Act, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, Obama has designated 11 important landscapes for preservation by declaring them national monuments. While these have mostly been small, the latest is the 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico. Both the New York Times’ Editorial Board and the League of Conservation Voters wrote pieces this week imploring the President to do more with the Antiquities Act.
Not only are right-wing politicians holding up environmental conservation efforts on all fronts — from clean water to climate change — but some actively want to open up national parks and federal lands to drilling in order to further propel fossil fuel production. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently filed an amendment that aims to sell off national forests, parks, and other public lands for use in mining, drilling, and logging operations.
Lee-Ashley said that the rapid growth of natural gas production and fracking that is happening across the country right now is upending the longstanding balance to try to manage development and resource extraction with conservation. “The energy boom has swung the pendulum to one side, and conservation has ground to a halt,” he said.
According to the New York Times, Obama still has time to establish a conservation legacy. Fifty years ago today, Lyndon B. Johnson did this for himself when he signed these two bills into law, saying that “America can not only be made strong by a Congress that acts only to the needs or irritations or frustrations of the moment. True leadership must provide for the next decade and not merely the next day.”
He called the 88th Congress the “Conservation Congress.” The current 113th Congress will need a new moniker to describe their legacy.