The air we breathe. The water we drink. The land that nourishes us. All this and more is reason enough to celebrate National Public Lands Day.
Celebrated this year on Saturday, Sept. 28th, National Public Lands Day is the largest single-day volunteer event on our public lands, where hundreds of thousands of volunteers come together annually to plant trees, make repairs and otherwise help improve the health and wellbeing of our public lands.
In addition to volunteer opportunities, many national parks and other public lands will offer free admission this Saturday and host celebration events like hikes, bike rides and paddling trips. In Wisconsin, you might go on a hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail with the Trailtessa group (which focuses on getting women and girls into the outdoors) or help with a clean-up at the Flambeau River State Forest.
Hunting, fishing and friends groups; The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and other land trusts; and federal, state and local governments all work to make sure some of our most beautiful and healthy natural areas are protected for the enjoyment of current and future generations. That includes protection and sustainable management of working forests like the Wild Rivers Legacy Forest; providing lands, waters, and trails for recreation in urban and rural areas; and conserving wetlands, which help keep our drinking water clean and absorb water during big rain events to reduce the damage from flooding.
Many of these places are protected thanks to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Since LWCF’s enactment over 50 years ago, forests, open spaces, watersheds and other landscapes in every state have been protected, all at no cost to the American taxpayer. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has also provided land conservation funding for the past 30 years right here in Wisconsin through a public-private partnership.
The LWCF is so effective that in February, Congress voted by overwhelming margins to make the program permanent. But while current law authorizes LWCF to receive up to $900 million per year, it has almost never been funded at that level. In fact, Congress has diverted more than half of the money owed to LWCF over the life of the program — $22 billion total – for other purposes.
Fortunately, bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to fully fund LWCF and make that funding permanent, but we need Congress to act.
Fully funding LWCF will not only be good for the conservation of Wisconsin’s public lands, it makes sense for our state’s economy. The outdoor recreation economy in Wisconsin alone is responsible for $17.9 billion annually in consumer spending and 168,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Implementing LWCF in Wisconsin helps boost the economy, create jobs and increase tourism.
Most Americans believe in this American idea—that a portion of our nation’s wealth should be used to invest in protecting special places. Several years ago, we put this idea to the test with a bipartisan poll and found that overwhelming majorities of Americans of all political persuasions believe that “conserving the country’s natural resources – land, air and water – is patriotic.”
In Wisconsin, a large majority of people across the political spectrum all supported reauthorization of the LWCF in 2018.
The Stewardship Program is just as crucial and faces similar challenges. A recent statewide TNC survey found that an overwhelming majority (93%) of Wisconsin voters—Republicans, Democrats and Independents—want to see the Stewardship Program reauthorized. It was renewed for just two years when it came up in this year’s state budget, versus the usual 10-year renewals received since its creation. We hope the governor and legislature will once again renew the program for decades to come, insuring the stability and sustainability of the vital work it supports.
History has shown that, from our nation’s first peoples, across centuries of leaders from all walks of life, nature unites us. We all need healthy lands and clean air and water, which means that protection of these resources is something Americans across race, politics, class and other lines of difference can work together to support.
I hope you all get outside to enjoy America’s public lands and take a moment to be grateful for the long tradition of Americans coming together around nature. Let’s honor that tradition as citizen stewards and by encouraging our government leaders to do the same.