By Karl K. Kindig
Kindig is the former president and CEO of Pittston Coal Company. He is a natural resources lawyer in Abingdon and serves on the Board of Trustees for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia.
Virginia’s natural bounty is truly remarkable. How lucky are those of us who live in southwestern Virginia? Simply put on your walking shoes and take a trail up the nearest mountain. The views alone are answer enough.
My walk would lead to the fire tower above Hayters Gap where I can see for 70 miles. Thanks to the commonwealth and The Nature Conservancy, my special place is protected within The Channels State Forest and Natural Area Preserve. And because it’s public land, it’s yours, too.
Our public lands span the state, offering some of this country’s finest places to hike, bike, camp, fish, hunt and simply experience the great outdoors. Virginians take pride in our public lands, love their scenic beauty and appreciate the rich cultural heritage they preserve.
Virginia’s annual celebration of public lands will begin on Saturday, September 22, which marks the 25th National Public Lands Day. Shenandoah National Park and 35 of Virginia’s 37 state parks will host service and educational events throughout the week, which culminates with our second Virginia Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 29.
These events highlight the many ways that public lands enhance our lives, while inviting us to volunteer a small amount of our time and energy in return. Protecting our natural heritage is a tradition that Virginians take seriously. In fact, we feel such a strong commitment to conserving our natural resources that we enshrined this responsibility in our state constitution.
Despite overwhelming public support for conservation, Virginia loses an estimated 93,000 acres of open lands every year. Once these forests, farms, ranches and natural areas are converted to development or similar uses, they’re gone forever.
For decades, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has served as one of our nation’s most effective tools for protecting places with ecological, cultural or historical value. LWCF is not funded by taxes, but rather with royalties that oil companies pay to the government for offshore drilling.
LWCF provides matching grants that enable states and localities to leverage their investments in shared conservation priorities. These grants fund strategies such as voluntary conservation easements that help rural communities sustain their way of life and protect clean water for everyone.
Millions of LWCF dollars have enabled the commonwealth and local communities to expand public access to lakes and streams, build sports fields for our kids, create new local parks and trails, manage productive working forests, and protect iconic places like the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For more than 50 years, LWCF has protected lands and waters in every county in every state across this country. Unfortunately, chronic underfunding has kept this vitally important program from reaching its potential. LWCF has regularly received only a fraction of the funds available every year.
The worst news is that LWCF is set to expire altogether at the end of September—unless Congress acts now to revive it.
We need Congress to renew LWCF not only so that Virginians can honor our commitment to conservation, but also to diversify our economy, increase revenues and create more jobs. Every year in Virginia, outdoor recreation, conservation and historic preservation account for $21.9 billion in consumer spending, $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenue, and 197,000 jobs that provide $6.5 billion in wages, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
A healthy environment and a robust economy go hand in hand, and LWCF is a smart way to achieve both. You can find out if your representative and senators have signed on as co-sponsors supporting legislation to fully reauthorize and fund the LWCF by visiting the LWCF Coalition’s website [https://www.lwcfcoalition.com/legislation/].
I encourage you to reach out to your congressional representatives today. Thank the co-sponsors for supporting LWCF, and remind the others that Virginians love our public lands and want Congress to authorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Then consider joining me and many fellow Virginians this September as we celebrate Public Lands Day at parks across the commonwealth. Volunteer opportunities closest to Roanoke include helping improve trails at Natural Bridge State Park and creating fish habitat structures at Smith Mountain Lake State Park. For information about all of the events, visit the Virginia United Land Trusts website [https://vaunitedlandtrusts.org/events/virginia-public-lands-day.