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Editorial: Public lands act opens new chapter in conservation

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7 Wonders of South Carolina — Congaree National Park (copy)

Congaree National Park

President Donald Trump is soon expected to sign a far-reaching public lands bill that for the first time will permanently and fully fund the 55-year-old Land and Water Conservation Act at $900 million per year and provide $9.5 billion over five years for maintaining national parks.

It’s big deal because it ensures our natural treasures, from the Francis Marion National Forest to Yosemite National Park, are maintained and protected, and that public funds will be available indefinitely to expand an array of conservation, forestry, park and wildlife projects.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the House of Representatives gave final approval to the Great American Outdoors Act by a 3-1 margin Wednesday. Despite some amendments and last-minute procedural hang-ups, the legislation passed largely intact.

Importantly, fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund won’t cost taxpayers anything. It’s funded through a portion of royalties paid to the government from offshore oil and gas leases, which makes perfect sense. One public natural resource, oil and gas, helps pay for another: public lands.

Though the LWCF, which the Sierra Club dubbed “the most important conservation law you’ve never heard of,” has been around since President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law in 1964, it had never been fully funded. Now it will be, permanently. That’s a spectacular turnaround from a couple of years ago, when the fund was in danger of expiring altogether and only about half-funded.

And it was clear our 60-plus national parks were in dire need of funding. The cost of backlogged maintenance projects has been reliably pegged at $12 billion.

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Combined, the money for national parks and the conservation fund represents perhaps the biggest win for public lands in a generation, maybe since President Teddy Roosevelt established national parks, forests and monuments.

President Trump promised to sign the bill earlier this year, tweeting that “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

Over the years, the LWCF has provided about $300 million for a variety of South Carolina projects that trickle down to the local level: matching funds for Waterfront Park, for example. It also has funded forestry projects, the conservation of park and farm land and has even been tapped elsewhere to help prevent flooding, something elected officials around the Lowcountry might be able take advantage of as we face inundation threats from increasingly wetter hurricanes, storm surges and rising seas.

South Carolina congressional members in both houses and from both parties deserve credit for backing the forward-looking legislation and getting it to the president’s desk during what are surely troubled times.

Now, S.C. elected officials at all levels need to start looking for ways to bring the federal funding home, as do conservation, hunting and wildlife, and environmental groups. South Carolina is a leader in land conservation, and its people know the value of protecting its natural resources.

Here in the Lowcountry, we still need to expand our regional greenbelt, protect our undeveloped barrier islands and swamps, and preserve our sanctuaries for seabirds and marine life. It’s really pretty simple: If we want a sustainable balance between urbanization and nature, we need to preserve more green space as we grow. Full permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Act represents a major part of that effort.

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