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Pat Byington: Protect the Land Water and Conservation Fund

Column by Pat Byington
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Just a month ago, my 6-year-old daughter Whitney and I traveled to a nearby state park, where we learned from a nature educator how to build fairy houses.

That’s right – fairy houses.

Using fallen leaves, branches, acorns (picking live plants are not allowed), and a heavy dose of imagination, my daughter, who is a city girl at heart, surprised her parents, becoming a fairy house architect in a matter of hours. And ever since that wonderful day she has loved forests and nature.

Every day we are bombarded with negative messages about our government. CNN has a regular “Broken Government” series. The Pew Research Center recently released polls showing that distrust in government is at an all-time high. But there is one federal program that, for more than 40 years, has strengthened our communities, protected our natural resources, and secured thousands of jobs. In fact, it helped create the state park that is home to my child’s fairy house. That program is the Land Water and Conservation Fund (LWCF).

LWCF is one of the most successful conservation programs in U.S. history, but most Americans have never heard of it. The program’s impact has been immeasurable. In Virginia alone, LWCF has created or funded more than 600 local and state parks. The Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, George Washington and Jefferson National Forest are just three of the national units that have benefited.

When my daughter drinks a glass of water from the tap, that water is drinkable because our national forests and local forest preserves are protecting the watersheds that naturally cleanse and filter our waters. In fact, according to a study by the American Water Works Association, forest cover in a watershed results in lower water treatment costs. For every 10 percent increase in forest cover in a water source area, treatment and chemical costs decrease 20 percent. LWCF helps increase forest cover.

In a year or two, my daughter might take up her daddy’s passion – soccer. Conceding to wear shorts instead of dresses, cleats instead of heels, she will join a local team. The soccer field she will play on will likely be one of the 700 parks and fields funded by LWCF in Virginia. These open spaces are helping combat childhood obesity, which has tripled since the 1960s.

In a couple of decades, perhaps my daughter will inherit her great grandmother’s love of history and heritage. She could follow in her footsteps and join the Daughters of the American Revolution. In time, she will walk the Overmountain Victory Trail in North Carolina, where the original Tennessee Volunteers, including one of her ancestors, crossed over the mountains; they crossed to support the American patriots in South Carolina in the decisive Southern Revolutionary battle of King’s Mountain. She can relive that brave moment in our family and country’s history because LWCF has saved portions of the trail. But will she be able to experience it? According to the National Park Service, half of the 677 identified sites associated with the Revolutionary War have been destroyed or extremely fragmented.

In coming years, my daughter with her own family probably will follow her parents’ lead and visit the beaches of Virginia, travel the Blue Ridge Parkway, hike the Appalachian Trail, and escape to one of the many historic military parks. She will seek unmarred landscapes and strong communities that cherish their natural resources and make a pretty good living sharing it with others. But it is a race against time. Recent Forest Service studies predict that we will lose 44 million acres of private forest nationwide to development by 2030. LWCF is one program that will help save our special places.

Despite success in garnering bipartisan support in Congress, LWCF has never been funded adequately. In fact, most of the time, it has received only $1 for every $3 it is supposed to receive from Congress. Yet, there are few federal programs that address so many pressing issues at once.

That may be changing. For the first time in a decade, Congress is seriously considering full and permanent funding of the LWCF. The proposal has two powerful allies: the chairmen of the House Natural Resources and Senate Energy Committees. In the coming months, members of the Virginia delegation will be asked to take a position.

Let’s hope they stand on the side of safe drinking water, children’s health, our heritage, special places and yes – fairy houses.

Pat Byington is a senior associate with The Wilderness Society and chair of the Eastern Forest Partnership, a coalition that includes Virginia-based conservation organizations.

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