Cindy Adams Dunn and Stephanie Wein: Celebrating conservation win in yr of loss

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It seems like more than ever, we’re barraged by a news cycle that’s filled with depressing stories about all the things going wrong in the world, from the divisiveness of the election to extreme weather and destruction, and of course, the pandemic.

But there’s some good news that has quietly been under the radar: After years of inaction, Congress this summer passed one of the largest ever increases in funding for our parks, forests and playgrounds. And they did it with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers. This will be a legacy of conservation that will benefit our kids and grandkids for decades to come. In a time of a lot of difficult news, this something we can celebrate.

The Great American Outdoors Act ensures permanent, dedicated funding to our nation’s most important conservation program — the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

While most Americans haven’t heard of the LWCF, there probably isn’t an American who hasn’t enjoyed a great outdoor place that’s been protected by this program. When we set out on a hike on the Appalachian Trail or sit down for a picnic in our neighborhood park, it’s often the LWCF that helped make that possible.

For more than 50 years, the LWCF has preserved and improved federal, state and local parks and open spaces. This includes iconic sites like Valley Forge, Gettysburg and the Allegheny National Forest. But it also includes playgrounds, neighborhood ball fields and swimming pools across the commonwealth. Over the years LWCF has supported projects in every Pennsylvania county, totaling $325 million in investments going toward more than 1,200 projects statewide. That includes the Schenley Oval Sportsplex, the home of Chatham’s men’s and women’s track and cross country teams, and East Liberty and Brentwood parks.

Despite its long-standing success, the LWCF has consistently been raided by Congress: $22 billion has been diverted from the program over the years, and ongoing efforts to permanently reauthorize and fund this program had stalled.

But this summer, Congress delivered a historic victory for conservation efforts across the country that will pay dividends in Pennsylvania. The Great American Outdoors Act allocates $900 million annually for protecting public lands, as well as an additional $9.5 billion to help address the backlog of maintenance and repair needed in national parks specifically.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will prioritize funding from the LWCF using its recently completed Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan — Recreation for All. Priorities include rehabilitation of existing public parks, trails and recreation areas; developing waterway access; completing trail projects to close priority trail gaps; and acquiring new park land in high-need areas.

This victory was the culmination of years of organizing and advocating by a broad coalition of conservation, hunting, fishing and recreation groups alongside local leaders and elected officials from both parties. Pennsylvania’s members of Congress played a critical role in its passage, with Sen. Bob Casey and 14 out of 18 members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, including Reps. Mike Doyle and Conor Lamb, voting for the Act.

And it couldn’t come at a better time. As the public health crisis has upended our daily lives, we’ve sought respite in the natural world. Whether it’s taking our families for a picnic in the local park, fishing in a quiet creek or enjoying a hike in the cool forest, we’re turning to nature more than ever.

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the many people involved in making this happen, Pennsylvania’s great outdoor places will be protected for generations to come.

Cindy Adams Dunn is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Stephanie Wein is the clean water and conservation advocate for PennEnvironment, a statewide, citizen-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

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