Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has announced his intention to kill the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal initiative that has helped protect more than seven million acres of parkland – an area larger than Massachusetts – at no cost to the government. Commonly referred to as “America’s best parks program,” the LWCF takes $900 million in annual royalties from oil and gas drilling and reinvests it into the purchase, protection, and enhancement of everything from National Parks to historic sites to small neighborhood parks. The current iteration of the program, however, expires tomorrow, and without the support of the Natural Resources Committee it will be defunded, leaving tens of thousands of acres of vulnerable and irreplaceable natural habitat ripe for commercial destruction.
While the loss of budget-neutral funding for parks is a preposterous tragedy in and of itself, what is even more frightening is the potential of LWCF defunding to lead to new development within National Parks. The LWCF has since its founding been the government’s only mechanism of purchasing inholdings, or pockets of privately-owned unprotected land within park boundaries, and with the program’s expiration, many of these sites will likely fall victim to development. A recent report found that 43% of our nation’s National Parks are at risk of this kind of inholding development, which has many sad precedents. Among the sites currently most vulnerable are picturesque stretches of Grand Teton National Park and an Underground Railroad stop in Gettysburg National Military Park, both of which will without LWCF funds likely fall victim to development that will forever be a blot on an otherwise untainted landscape.
Why, a sensible person might ask, would anyone want to end a program that protects our nation’s Natural wonders at no cost to the government and has broad bipartisan support? Why end such an objectively beneficial program that even many Congressional Republicans support? As is the case far too often in modern American politics, the answer lies in the informal corruption of unfettered campaign donations to buy off politicians. The oil and gas industry is far and away Bishop’s largest source of super PAC donation funds, doling out almost $50,000 to his campaign in the most recent election cycle. Needless to say, the big oil execs would rather not have to fork over the $900 million annually to help protect the Earth from their constant misdeeds. No matter how much of a fraction of a drop in the bucket this virtuous tax is, greedy oil execs would rather keep it for themselves. And their lackies in Congress, including Bishop, are all too happy to oblige if it keeps the spigot of campaign donations flowing. As if to draw more attention to the leash of his corporate masters, Bishop has said that he would transform LWCF into a “program to pay for the education of future American energy industry workers.”
Rob Bishop and his backers have likely just sounded the death knell for one of America’s – and the world’s – most important and beneficial conservation initiatives, and yet no one seems to be paying attention. The Earth is fast approaching a breaking point in Climate Change as unfettered development continues to destroy our planet’s natural habitats and threaten the Earth itself. Even the Pope, in his recent American visit, called on all of us to “protect our common home” and look out for the environment. To many Republicans, however, the protection of our planet for the sustainable use and enjoyment of scores of future generations is apparently of far less import than a $50,000 check from Big Oil.