If there's one thing we've learned from BP's disastrous oil spill, it's how missed opportunities can come back to haunt you. One glaring example has received little attention, however. Back in 1965, Congress began funding land conservation through royalties from offshore oil and gas production, believing that the environmental cost of developing the outer continental shelf needed to be balanced by protecting the country's most important natural areas. Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in order to achieve this, and promised to give it $900 million per year.
That sounded like a fair bargain 45 years ago, but Congress has lived up to that promise only two years out of the program's history. Over the last decade, Congress has appropriated an average of only $313 million per year for conservation, even as the average yearly revenues from offshore drilling royalties have exceeded $7 billion.
We now have a chance to salvage this conservation tool and restore Congress' original intent. A bill recently introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., would provide full and dedicated funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year. A dozen other senators have co-sponsored the bill (S. 2747), and a similar measure has been included in the House Energy bill.
It is no accident that the leadership for restoring this fund is coming from the Rocky Mountain West. The fund has been pivotal to many collaborative groups and communities working to sustain large landscapes in the face of development pressures.
Consider the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana, where the Northern Rockies dive into the Great Plains. This immense landscape defies all expectations: Windswept grasslands are braided with wetland-choked coulees, grizzlies still roam the open prairie, and an independent bunch of ranchers is quietly working to sustain this extraordinary place for future generations.
I first met rancher Dusty Crary in his kitchen over a cup of coffee more than a decade ago. He clearly had no use for most of the suggestions conservationists had for "saving" his home. But his ideas for maintaining this wide-open, working landscape were as breathtaking and articulate as any I have ever met. He challenged us to work with him to keep stewards like him on the land. He and a collaborative group of ranchers on the Front said they were interested in protecting their ranches with conservation easements if the resources could be found to purchase them.
What Crary and his neighbors wanted was an opportunity to sustain an entire landscape, not just a few isolated ranches. What they needed, in a word, was money—lots of it. The Land and Water Conservation Fund delivered. Led by Crary and other local landowners and backed by Montana's congressional delegation, the resulting private-public partnership has now protected more than 138,000 acres of the Front with conservation easements. As Crary says, "Through this amazing cooperation, we have been able to tie together private and public lands at a scale that is much greater than any one landowner could have imagined alone."
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has also helped the people of the San Luis Valley in Colorado prevent a trans-basin diversion by protecting the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch and its water. It was also key to preventing development of a 6,000-acre inholding within Oregon's Hells Canyon National Recreation, and it is helping to protect working ranches around Idaho's Henry's Lake that serve as a crossroads for wildlife that migrate between Yellowstone National Park and surrounding lands.
These stories reflect a rising tide of collaborative efforts in communities all over the West. But little can be accomplished without adequate funding to achieve landscape-level solutions. Otherwise, communities can't hope to keep pace with development that disrupts rural economies and fragments wildlife corridors. If communities want more than just symbolic demonstration projects, they need to think big. It takes large ideas to save large swatches of land.
Recognizing the promise of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Obama administration has proposed a 29 percent increase in its budget for the fund this year. But to truly restore the fund to achieve its original intent, Congress must act. I hope BP's disastrous oil spill spurs our elected officials to do the right thing at last. The public agrees: A recent poll found that 85 percent of voters asked said it is even more important today that funds "from offshore oil and gas drilling be used to protect our forests, rivers, lakes, wetlands, beaches and wildlife habitat."
If that can be achieved, then visionary landowners can help safeguard the West's greatest places. As Crary puts it, "It doesn't matter how long I'll be here, because this ranch and many others on the Rocky Mountain Front will remain intact and productive forever."
Jamie Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the director of landscape conservation for the Nature Conservancy and lives in Boulder, Colorado.