The U.S. Senate this week overwhelmingly voted to reinstate a popular program that uses revenue generated by offshore oil and gas drilling to protect public lands.
In a 92-8 vote, the Senate passed the "Natural Resources Management Act," a sweeping public lands package. In addition to permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the bill places more than 1 million new acres of wilderness under protection, including the the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area in Randolph County.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, was created more than 50 years ago to protect, preserve and acquire public lands and waters and make them available for public recreation.
LWCF in W.Va.
In West Virginia, it’s been used to make improvements to parks and public spaces in 54 of the state’s 55 counties. It paid for the acquisitions of popular recreation areas including the New River Gorge National River, Dolly Sods and the Gauley River National Recreation Area.
"This is truly the part of the legislation that really carries the water, figuratively speaking," West Virignia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said, speaking from the Senate floor Tuesday. "This is a simple, yet highly effective conservation tool with unrivavled success over the last 50 years."
Manchin said West Virignia's outdoor recreation industry supports 91,000 jobs and brings millions of dollars in economic benefits to the state annually.
As ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin played a key role in getting the bill passed in the Senate.
Environmental groups praised the bill and Manchin's efforts.
"Senator Manchin’s leadership to get this bill across the finish line will help ensure that future generations of West Virginians can access their public lands for hunting, fishing and other outdoor traditions enjoyed by so many in the Mountain State," stated Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society.
The bill also increases the funding cap for the Wheeling National Heritage Area. The waterfront area was established in 2001. With the increased cap, the Wheeling National Heritage Area can continue to apply for grants from the National Park Service.
The bill passed by the Senate also extends for seven years the popular "Every Kid in a Park" program, which allows fourth graders and their families free visits to national parks.
Although the LWCF enjoys bipartisan support, it has struggled to gain Congressional reauthorization since expiring last fall. Although the new legislation permanently reauthorizes the program, the fund's contents are still subject to Congress' annual appropriations process.
Manchin said he intends to secure permanent funding for the program.
The House is expected to take up the legislation soon, without major changes.