By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
The Land for Maine’s Future program has been in the spotlight in Maine because Gov. Paul LePage refuses to let the popular land conservation program work. In Washington, another important land preservation tool, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is in jeopardy.
Authorization for the program expired last week. It has some money in reserve, but without renewed authorization from Congress, many projects will languish. Beyond simply restarting the program, Congress should create a more predictable, and less political, funding stream for LWCF.
The fund began in 1964 and is now funded with revenue from offshore oil and gas leases. Maine has received more than $170 million from LWCF.
It has funded hundreds of projects in Maine, most of them small. Money from the program has helped build parks and recreational facilities, including ball fields, swimming pools and tennis courts, in communities across the state. It has also helped pay for dozens of boat launches and small public beaches.
It also funds large land preservation projects. The acquisition of more than 200 acres along the St. Croix River in Washington County, for example, is listed as one of the fund’s “exemplary projects.” It has also helped acquire land for Acadia National Park and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
The Forest Legacy Program, which helps preserve working timberland, is also funded through LWCF. President Barack Obama has included money in his budget for a forest preservation project in Aroostook County, called Big Six, which would help protect a major maple syrup producing area.
No projects in Maine are affected by the LWCF limbo, said John Bott, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Two Maine projects have already been approved for funding: reconstruction of the headquarters building at Sebago Lake State Park, which was destroyed by a fire last year, and construction of a fishing platform for wounded veterans at Songo Locks on Sebago Lake.
Despite bipartisan support for LWCF reauthorization, congressional leaders let the program expire on Sept. 30.
Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins signed on to a letter to Senate leadership urging short-term reauthorization of the program. In addition to allowing LWCF to continue work on current projects, this would give lawmakers time to find a more stable funding mechanism.
“Lasting authorization and consistent funding of the LWCF will ensure that the fund plays the strongest possible role in revitalizing local communities,” the letter, signed by 47 senators, said. “America’s outdoor recreation, conservation and preservation economies contribute over $1 trillion to the nation’s economy each year and support 9.4 million American jobs. This is one out of every 15 jobs in the U.S.”
Since the program now must be restarted, lawmakers can fix problems with its funding. Under the current funding mechanism, oil and gas revenue for LWCF goes to the Treasury Department. Congress then must pass an appropriation for the money to be directed into the LWCF trust fund. As with other funds that require congressional action, money is too often diverted to other uses. In the last five decades, Congress has diverted $18 billion worth of LWCF funding for other uses, leading to a backlog of projects awaiting funding.
King and others want to make the payments from the trust fund mandatory, leaving Congress out of the mechanics of funding the program. This makes sense and removes politics from a program that needs a more predictable funding stream.