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My Desert - Our Voice: Keep Protecting Coachella Valley Public Lands

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The idea of the Land and Water Conservation Fund was hatched in the late 1950s to provide Americans the "physical, cultural and spiritual benefits of outdoor recreation."

President John F. Kennedy proposed legislation to create the fund in 1963 and it became law in 1965 with broad bipartisan support to create a revenue stream to expand public lands.

Initially, the money came from the sale of surplus federal property, a tax on boat fuel and park fees. That generated about $100 million a year, which was short of the goal. In 1968, a portion of leases for offshore oil drilling was dedicated to the fund. That doubled the revenue, and today it is the primary source of funding.

In nearly 50 years, the fund has allocated $3.6 billion for planning and acquisition of outdoor recreation opportunities. Matching grants from state and local governments have doubled that investment.

The Coachella Valley has benefited greatly from the fund. In 2009, only $53 million was allocated nationwide but $6.5 million went to protect habitat and open space in the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

In the past 46 years, Congress has diverted $17 billion for other purposes. This is unconscionable. The Desert Sun believes oil royalties should continue to robustly protect our precious wilderness.
Full funding or an end to a great program?

Oil royalties now generate $900 million a year for the fund. President Barack Obama has proposed allocating $600 million from the fund in 2014 and full funding in 2015 -- that is, all the money generated going into national parks proposals.

In April, a letter signed by a record 158 representatives and 48 senators to the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environmental and Related Agencies supported Obama's plan. Inadequate funding jeopardizes access for public lands for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.

"This, in turn, has an adverse effect on America's outdoor recreation, conservation and preservation economies, which contributes $1.06 trillion to the nation's economy each year and supports 9.4 million American jobs," the letter says.

By The Desert Sun Editorial Board

Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Palm Desert Democrat, says he supports the conservation fund.

"The Land and Water Conservation Fund is critical in protecting natural resource lands, outdoor recreation areas and working forests in California and across the country," he said in an email on Friday. "Right here in the California desert, the LWCF helps maintain the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, ensuring they continue to be a popular tourist destination for our region. I support continuing to fund the LWCF to make certain these national treasures are preserved for generations to come."

The federal budget sequester cost the National Park Service (NPS) $110 million this year. With another debt ceiling budget battle approaching at the end of this month, the Land and Water Conservation Fund could again be a tempting target for budget hawks. Even more disturbing is that authorization of the fund expires in 2015. We don't want to imagine Congress pulling the plug on a program that has done so much good for the nation for so long.
Local proposals

The 2014 wish list for funding would have a significant impact on this region. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposes more than $10 million in improvements to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, the San Bernardino National Forest and the Pacific Trail. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is asking for nearly $6 million more for the national monument and nearly $2 million for protection of the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard habitat.

And four agencies -- NPS, USFS, BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- have collaborated on a proposal to spend $7.5 million to protect wildlife corridors in and around Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. The plan would add 3,381 acres to Joshua Tree and 6,176 acres to the preserve.

"It's an important project, supported by both California senators," said Alan Rowsome of the Wilderness Society. "Interior puts it high on its list."

The areas are threatened by potential residential and commercial development, and by off-road vehicles, he said.

Every year that these proposals sit on the shelf adds to the risk that the land will give way to development -- from which it can never return. Open space in and around the Coachella Valley is a big part of what makes this a special place to live and play. Joshua Tree and the national monument are part of a strong eco-tourism economic engine. And protecting endangered species is a mission that cannot be ignored.

Keep the conservation fund going strong.

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