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Op-ed: U.S. Senate makes landmark investment in nature

In times of trouble and uncertainty, humanity has always turned to the natural world for solace. In West Virginia, this is no different. West Virginia is a place encompassed by beautiful landscapes, sprawling mountain ranges and endless outdoor recreation opportunities for both residents and out-of-state travelers. The mountains and rivers provide comfort to those seeking refuge, and the adventures that await in the Mountain State–including rock climbing, hiking and whitewater rafting–provide a much-needed respite from daily worries while bolstering our outdoor recreation and tourism industries.

As the nation reels from the challenges of a global pandemic and deep, systemic injustice, we know that nature can play a role in our economic and emotional recovery. West Virginia’s leaders in the U.S. Senate know this, too. Last Tuesday, Senators Manchin and Capito joined with 71 senators to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, a once-in-a-generation investment in conservation, one West Virginia and the rest of the country needs right now. We applaud Senators Capito and Manchin for championing this Act–a win for our lands and waters, our economy and our communities.

The bill addresses two of the biggest challenges facing the American outdoors, underfunding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the $20 billion backlog of repairs needed in national parks and on other public lands.

For more than 50 years, LWCF has helped preserve forests, open spaces, watersheds and other landscapes in every state. Several national parks along with hundreds of trails and athletic fields across the country owe their existence and continuity to LWCF. And because LWCF uses federal offshore oil and gas revenue, it has done all of this at no cost to the taxpayer.

In tandem with partners, The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia (TNC) has helped conserve the forests and waters of the state that sequester carbon, offer habitat for important wildlife, and provide clean air, water and flood mitigation for millions of people in the east. Because of LWCF support, TNC has seen incredible conservation outcomes in such iconic places as the New River Gorge, Cheat Canyon and the Monongahela National Forest.

Current law authorizes LWCF to receive up to $900 million per year, but it has almost never been funded at that level. This bill would fix that, fully and permanently funding LWCF at $900 million per year, creating greater certainty and resources to protect important landscapes from being irrevocably lost to development and other uses.

It would also help address the staggering backlog of repairs needed in our national parks, forests and other public lands. These repair needs, which include crumbling roads and trails, aging visitor centers and broken monuments, limit access and jeopardize important historical, natural and cultural landmarks.

The act would direct up to $9.5 billion in non-taxpayer funds over five years to address priority repairs in national parks and on other public lands.

The investments called for in this act would not only help protect the outdoors, it would be a major investment in our economy. The outdoor recreation economy in West Virginia alone is responsible for $9 billion in consumer spending and 91,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

The bill enjoys broad, bipartisan support in the House and Senate, demonstrating the widespread understanding that conservation is a part of the solution for the challenges we face. We applaud Senators Manchin and Capito for their leadership and look forward to working with West Virginia’s representatives in the House to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.

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Thomas Minney is executive director at The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, and Beth Wheatley is director of external affairs and strategic initiatives at The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

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