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Jewell in ABQ: Renew public lands legislation

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in May, treks the Dripping Springs Natural Area, now part of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Las Cruces

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in May, treks the Dripping Springs Natural Area, now part of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, speaking in Albuquerque on Thursday, encouraged Congress to renew a 50-year-old law used to set aside money for public lands, and to provide the money to carry out the legislation’s mandate.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is due to expire in 2015, Jewell noted in her keynote address to an audience of about 500 people attending the National Wilderness Conference, going on this week.

The law, nearly unanimously approved by Congress in 1965, was intended to funnel some of the federal lease revenue collected from offshore oil drilling into purchase and preservation of lands around the United States.

The idea, Jewell explained, was to offset some of the environmental downside of oil and gas development by investing in public lands. “Let’s mitigate those impacts by investing onshore,” she explained, “in land and waters that are important to us.”

The law authorized spending $900 million a year in the fund, a portion of that offshore oil and gas revenue. But it depended on Congress taking a second step each year and actually moving money into the fund through the appropriation process.

Frequently, that has not happened.

From 1965 to 2010, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, less than half the amount collected for this purpose has been used in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with the rest reverting to the Treasury to be spent on other things.

The shortfall has been felt here in New Mexico, forcing federal, state and local officials to scramble to find money to buy the land for the new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Bernalillo County’s South Valley. Valle de Oro is a perfect example of the sort of project for which he fund was intended, Jewell said in a conversation with reporters after her address.

With the law set to expire at the end of September 2015, Jewell called on Congress not only to renew the law, but to do it in such a way that the $900 million is guaranteed, and not at risk of being siphoned off to pay for other federal programs.

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