It’s an understatement to describe Idaho as a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Places like Hells Canyon and Sawtooth Valley national recreation areas, the Snake River, and the Boise Foothills draw millions of adventurous types every year who explore the state’s wilderness areas via hiking, paddling, and mountain biking.
But the future of those wilderness meccas—along with that of hundreds of others across the country—might soon be in danger, depending on the fate of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is set to expire on September 30 unless Congress acts. Without a late amendment, the LWCF will not be reauthorized for the first time in its 50-year history.
Since 1964, the LWCF, which uses royalty money from federal oil and gas leases, has helped protect from development some of the country’s most famous parks, historic places, and wilderness areas, including the Appalachian Trail and the Everglades. It’s also helped local governments acquire land for such resources as greenways and playgrounds.
If the fund doesn’t get reauthorized, Idaho stands to get hit especially hard. Since 1964, the state has received approximately $234 million in LWCF funding, including $29.7 million for 19 projects across 25,000 acres over the last three years, according to the Idaho Statesman. In addition, $880,000 in LCWF funds was used by the Bureau of Land Management to expand the Boise Foothills in 2008 alone, according to Sara Schmidt of Summit Business Solutions. These foothills contain more than 130 miles of trails used by approximately 660,000 enthusiasts annually.
Conservation groups across Idaho and beyond have been closely following the situation as it plays out in Congress and have been urging lawmakers to reauthorize the fund.
“It is a critical step in maintaining the standing for conservation in the federal budget,” says Will Whelan, director of government relations for the Idaho Nature Conservancy. “It leaves us in a much stronger position to secure the annual appropriations that make the program work. It represents the nation’s commitment to conservation and the link between conservation and the revenue we get from selling the nation’s outer continental shelf oil and gas.”
In fact, Idaho has been a shining example of success for the LWCF. Take the South Fork of the Snake River, one of the most biologically diverse natural areas in Idaho, with cottonwood forests providing habitat for bald eagles, songbirds, moose, and elk. It’s a stronghold for Yellowstone’s cutthroat trout and is beloved by anglers. But at one point, much of the land along the river was slated for development; now, 14,000 acres of the main canyon are protected by the LWCF, coordinating with The Nature Conservancy, the Teton Regional Land Trust, and the BLM.
Additionally, the Salmon River, the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 that carves out a canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon, is not only gorgeous, it’s one of the most economical uses of LWCF funds within the BLM: $12 million over 12,000 acres. The area attracts more than 600,000 visitors per year, drawn by a multitude of outdoor recreation resources, including fishing, camping, hunting, hiking, and wildlife viewing.So, what can outdoor enthusiasts do? A good first step is to sign this letter, sponsored by the Idaho Outdoor Business Council, to remind Idaho Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo that conservation needs a long-term commitment from government leaders.
But despite continuing pressure from environmental and conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy, Congressional lollygagging continues. The future of beloved Idaho wilderness areas—whether they’ll remain open and what entry fees will be, for example—remains a deeply troubling question here and across the country. No doubt outdoor enthusiasts and conservation groups will keep a close eye on what happens in Washington over the next 24 hours—and whether our elected leaders will step up to protect and preserve the wilderness lands that so desperately need it.