Democrats vow to preserve conservation fund

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Congress is running out of time to reauthorize the national Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will expire after 50 years on Sept. 30, something that members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation on Tuesday vowed to not let happen.

Speaking before a crowd of about 75 people at the Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico Democrats Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, along with several community leaders, said the fund has not only helped to create public lands, but it has been an economic driver for the state and has protected core cultural traditions, such as hunting and fishing.

In the past five decades, New Mexico has received more than $261 million from the fund – money that was used to help purchase, preserve and improve such places as Petroglyph National Monument, Tingley Beach, the Rio Grande Nature Center, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and the Valles Caldera. In addition, said Heinrich, conservation funds have been used to help build softball and soccer fields, neighborhood parks, community swimming pools and improve hiking trails and campgrounds throughout the state.

“While we have many deadlines all converging on us in Washington, D.C., at the end of September, it should not be lost on us how important this program is,” he said. “I’m encouraged to say that Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthorization passed out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that I serve on a few weeks ago.”

The reauthorization was part of a bipartisan energy package, he said. “So now, we just have to get that bill out on the floor and get it passed. I’m optimistic that Congress will reauthorize it, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Lujan Grisham, an avid fan of fly-fishing, said the fund supports fishing, hunting, hiking and other outdoor recreational activity, and reauthorizing it “is good, smart policy.” She added that she and other members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are “going to fight hard to make sure we don’t miss the opportunity.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established by Congress in 1965 and was to sunset after 50 years. Money for the fund came from a portion of royalties from offshore oil and gas development, generating about $900 million annually. However, only about $300 million was typically appropriated yearly because Congress diverted a large portion of the fund to other purposes, Heinrich said.

Consequently, in conjunction with the reauthorization bill, Heinrich said he was proposing legislation to ensure that money that comes into the fund is spent solely on those things that the fund was established to acquire, preserve and improve.

Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said the wildlife conservation fund is a “critical economic driver” in New Mexico, where the outdoor and recreational industries contribute $3.8 billion annually to the state’s economy.

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