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Editorial: Congress makes good on ’64 vow for a greater outdoors

“We need to permanently and fully fund LWCF to guarantee … the outdoor places we all treasure will be protected for future generations to enjoy.”

– U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

“Expanding, restoring and maintaining our public lands can be a massive job creator.”

– U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

Five decades after Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund “to safeguard our natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans,” it is going to fully fund the program. And it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

The Great American Outdoors Act combines the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act and the Restore Our Parks Act. Just as the New Deal put people back to work improving our nation’s infrastructure during the Great Depression, the Great American Outdoors Act – which fully and permanently funds the LWCF and dedicates up to $1.9 billion to deferred park maintenance over 5 years – promises to put people back to work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, improving our state’s and nation’s most special places.

And all without taking a dime from taxpayers.

That’s because the LWCF was ingeniously crafted to take revenues from the depletion of one resource – offshore oil and gas – and use them to conserve another – parks, wildlife refuges, forests, open spaces, trails and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, in the years since its passage, Congress has fully funded the program just once, diverting more than $22 billion to purposes other than the law was intended. And in New Mexico that has left world-class sites like Carlsbad Caverns with $40 million in deferred maintenance. Special places our state’s tourism economy relies on – from Aztec Ruins National Monument to Valles Caldera National Preserve – have a whopping $121 million-plus to-do list to adequately preserve, protect and improve everything from stabilizing archaeological sites at Bandelier and Chaco Canyon to replacing trails and handrails at Carlsbad Caverns to updating 1930s-era bathrooms and adding Wi-Fi at White Sands.

Meanwhile, the next generation of our state’s outdoor recreational must-sees, from a completed Continental Divide Trail to hiking routes along the Animas River through Farmington and from Raton to the Colorado border, have been piecemeal projects or remained on the drawing board.

Until now. The Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act on a bipartisan 73-25 vote last month; the House passed it 310-107 Wednesday. The president has expressed his support for it on Twitter. Passage will mean a huge investment in national and state treasures, as well as local parks, pools and ball field. It will mean years of construction and maintenance jobs at sites locals and tourists will enjoy for decades to come.

And while things like travel and crowds will be different in a COVID-19 world, there’s little question enjoying the great outdoors will remain one of the healthiest ways to recreate.

Also of little question is the fact recreation remains a critical part of the economic lifeblood of New Mexico and our local economies. According to an op-ed from the Economic Forum of Albuquerque earlier this year, “our tourism and hospitality industries ha(ve) created the second-largest sector of the New Mexico economy, with more than 100,000 quality jobs and visitor-driven spending that accounts for about $7.1 billion of our overall annual economic impact.”

Investing in our national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails, and ballfields is an investment in our people, our heritage and our future. New Mexico’s Sens. Udall and Heinrich have fought for permanent and full funding for years, and we are now perhaps just weeks away from seeing that hard work quite literally pay off for generations of New Mexicans.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.