By D. Thomas Ross

In my more than forty years as a parks and recreation professional at the local, state and federal levels, I have seen the creation and protection of thousands of special places across our great nation. Most people would be surprised to know that it was all due to a little known program established by Congress in 1965 with strong bipartisan support: The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

My involvement with this program began in Massachusetts in the 1970s, when we helped create local parks and restored urban park systems, and ended 30 years later after I finished serving as assistant director of the National Park Service.

In those years, I was inspired every day by state and local partners as they created places that gave meaning to our lives and to those of future generations. Places to play in our neighborhoods and elsewhere, places to hear the sounds of laughter and the songs of wildlife, places to connect with others, places to learn new skills and the importance of teamwork and getting along with others.

Places that I described to my mother when I was four or five as the most beautiful places on earth. This is the story of the LWCF, which today stands on the verge of extinction through congressional inaction.

Since 1965, the LWCF has been a principal resource in the creation and ongoing protection of public parks of all shapes and sizes. These include large state and regional parks, trails, greenways, neighborhood parks, swimming pools, athletic fields, playgrounds, wildlife areas, nature parks and more. Today, more than 98 percent of the nation’s counties have received LWCF state assistance funds.

The Fund also assists four federal land management agencies (including the National Park Service) in protecting such precious resources as national park lands and critical open spaces that provide protection for habitat and wildlife that are so important to our future. Places like the Grand Canyon National Park, the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historic Park, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the White Mountain National Forest, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and literally hundreds of historic sites have been protected and made available to the public under the Fund.

There are four important aspects to the LWCF program. First, the Fund is not supported by taxpayer dollars, but rather by an array of other income sources, including royalties from offshore oil drilling and the sale of excess federal lands identified by the department. Second, funds do not go for short-term operational needs, but for the acquisition of lands and the development of outdoor recreational opportunities.

Third, each site acquired or developed is protected in perpetuity, meaning that it will remain available for future generations of Americans. Finally, federal assistance is matched equally by state and local dollars, which today represents a total investment of more than $8 billion in our nation’s system of parks and recreation areas.

What needs to happen? First, we need to understand and celebrate the success of this popular and respected national program. Like our great national parks, the LWCF has enabled us to plan, develop and protect sites of all sizes that represent our national heritage. Without these special places we would lose part of our history, our culture and our values as Americans.

But we also need to think about future generations of Americans and how we ensure that they too will enjoy safe places to play and recreate. A few years ago, states identified almost $19 billion in needed funds to create and develop public parks. Today, that figure would be even higher as the need for both “close-to-home” park and recreational opportunities continues to grow and the need to protect critical federally owned landscapes becomes more urgent.

The need is no less on the federal side: Between the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management, there’s an estimated $30 billion needed to help acquire critical lands and inholdings.

With the LWCF expiring in less than 100 days, Congress must act to ensure that future generations have access to healthy outdoor recreation resources. Debate in Congress raises fears that it will fail to continue this valuable program. Congress is failing to demonstrate the kind of overwhelming bipartisan support for conservation and recreation that led to the creation of the Fund 50 years ago and the protection of so many important areas throughout the nation. It’s time for Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

D. Thomas Ross served as the assistant director for recreation and conservation with the National Park Service overseeing the Land and Water Conservation Fund state assistance program.