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OPINION: Safeguard the Outdoors 

Investments in conservation will yield dividends for our city.

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Scott Elmquist

Since Richmond was named Best River Town by Outside magazine in 2012, we continue to rank as a top travel destination. Whether for our vibrant restaurant and craft brewery scene or the high-quality festivals and events, tourists are flocking to Richmond every year where they discover our outdoor recreational opportunities.

The James River that runs through our downtown is central to our identity and connects the plethora of historic and culturally significant sites across the region. Its health is marked as a barometer of progress ever since the toxic Kepone contamination in the 1970s gave the James its status as a dead river. As we improve water quality and protect our primary source of drinking water, we are also adding to our local economy. Behind agriculture, tourism is Virginia’s second-largest industry, ahead of forestry. Places such as the James River Park System are now welcoming nearly 2 million visitors a year.

In 2009 the system was permanently protected by a conservation easement out of concern posed by the threat of development. Yet its protected status has helped contribute to our sense of place — a pride in a downtown that shares a natural habitat where the endangered Atlantic sturgeon breeds and the once-endangered peregrine falcon and bald eagle are sighted frequently. However, threats persist and continued preservation of important places is paramount to maintaining Richmond’s identity and in ensuring we remain a top place to visit.

The region should not be alone in this work. We need strong state and federal partners to help drive continued investment in expanding outdoor recreation access, safeguarding important places, and protecting water quality.

In 2019, Congress missed an opportunity by failing to provide the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full and dedicated funding. Every year, $900 million goes into this fund, paid by oil and gas companies that hold leases on the outer continental shelf. And while Congress did appropriate $495 million in the 2020 budget, the largest allocation for the fund that we’ve seen in the past 15 years, nearly half of the funding promised to this program was still diverted elsewhere.

This lapse comes amid unprecedented demand for conservation funding. There is currently a federal backlog of $30 billion in conservation needs and states have expressed a need for $27 billion in funding to help finalize eligible parks and outdoor recreation projects.

Congress saw fit a year ago to protect the fund from ever expiring. The sweeping public lands package signed into law in March, known as the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, was adopted with strong bipartisan support. It’s now time for legislators to finish the job and give this program the permanent and dedicated resources it needs to continue protecting important places, safeguarding our land and water, and connecting more people with their natural environment.

Since it was established in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has made $360.8 million of investments across Virginia, helping protect some of our most prized places and expanding recreational access for hunting, fishing, hiking, sports and other outdoor activities.

In the Richmond region, such funding helped create the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Jackson Ward, itself a National Historic Landmark District, preserving the home of one of Richmond’s most important residents and helping tell the story of this prominent, trailblazing entrepreneur and a pioneer in the civil rights movement.

The fund also helped protect the Petersburg National Battlefield, sections of the 13-site Richmond National Battlefield Park and the nearby James River National Wildlife Refuge.

All of these sites give visitors the opportunity to get outdoors and connect with history and nature firsthand, and they all come with economic benefits. Nearly 100,000 people visit the Richmond National Battlefield Park every year, according to the National Park Service. These same visitors eat at our restaurants, shop in our stores and stay in our hotels.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, active outdoor recreation is a huge economic driver in Virginia, generating nearly $22 billion in consumer spending, 200,000 jobs and $1.2 billion of annual state and local tax revenue. An estimated 3.3 million sportsmen and wildlife watchers contribute another $2.4 billion in wildlife recreation spending to the state economy.

The fund is not just about protecting large swaths of land for the enjoyment of outdoorsmen, though. The program also helps fund municipal fields and ballparks, projects that benefit youth and local communities. Its funding would be a valuable tool for Richmond as the city seeks to increase access to the outdoors, including plans to connect more people with the James River and ensure every resident has a park or public open space within a 10-minute walk of home.

But first, Congress needs to act. Proposed federal legislation known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act already has 232 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives including Donald McEachin and Abigail Spanberger, as well as 50 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. There are enough sponsors to ensure passage of permanent funding at $900 million annually but it needs to get to the floor for a vote in both chambers.

Between 1965 and 2019, approximately $40.9 billion has been deposited to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with only $18.9 billion voluntarily appropriated by Congress. From 1968 until 1979, more than $750,000 in grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund were invested in the James River Park System alone. It’s been almost 20 years since a locality in the Richmond region received local assistance money from the fund.

Authorization of permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund would unlock more than $22 billion that can be immediately invested in land conservation nationwide and make more funding available for future years. A small fraction of this investment could make communities like Richmond continue to be great places to visit and even better places to live, let alone help address the many threats that wildlife is experiencing under a changing climate. S

Parker C. Agelasto is executive director of the Capital Region Land Conservancy. Contact him at 202-302-0153 or parker@capitalregionland.org.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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