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Making a pitch for the outdoors; lobbying on behalf of the LWCF

The annual rendezvous at Ft. Union Trading Post attracts re-enactors from a wide area. Ft. Union has benefited from past recipient of LWCF (Land and Water Conservation Fund) dollars. Photo courtesy US National Park Service

Lobbying. The very word makes me cringe. It connotes all manner of unseemly political chicanery from bought-and-paid-for votes on contentious issues to the unflattering influence money brings to the process. At the same time, however, without lobbyists many of the issues and problems we face as Americans - or at least our opinion of them - would not garner the attention of our elected officials. Additionally, those simple telephone calls we as citizens make to our senators and those short notes we scribble to our representatives are, in essence, lobbying. And so the very idea of lobbying becomes a necessary but begrudging tool if we are to engage ourselves in the democratic system.

A few weeks ago a rather unique opportunity arose which offered up a shot to stand up and be counted in this process. How the Wilderness Society found my name is still somewhat a mystery but find it they did. (Full disclosure: I am not a member of the Wilderness Society). What the group offered was simply the chance to go to Washington D. C. and speak on behalf of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in front of North Dakota's senators and lone representative. In other words, lobby on behalf of something I believe in.

Normally, I would have found it easy to stiff-arm such an idea and stay within the comfort zone of my usual benign existence. But for whatever reason, this one tugged at me. I knew enough about LWCF to be reasonably informed. I knew it was a good thing. I knew the North Dakota reps had probably heard from Capitol Hill lobbyists about it in the past. But I also surmised they may not have heard the average North Dakota citizen speak about it, much less travel to D. C. to make a direct pitch. That notion alone led me to believe I might just make a difference, so after considerable thought I decided to give it a go and last week I made the trip.

What makes the LWCF so easily understood and so readily supported publically is its simplicity. In 1965, Congress authorized the setting aside of $900 million annually for the protection of important land, water, and recreation areas for all Americans. The source of these monies makes it even more amenable to most citizens: It comes directly from a small percent of federal offshore gas and oil drilling fees. In other words, not a single tax dollar is used to fulfill this annual funding.

Through the years these dollars have gone to countless projects in all 50 states. Over 41,000 state and local park projects have been helped by the LWCF - everything from Little League ball fields to campground facilities to preserving historic battlefields. In other words, all those things we Americans savor in the outdoors.

Dollars specific to North Dakota this year included money directed to Lions Park in Burleigh County, a natural area in Bottineau County, and Ft. Stevenson State Park in Mclean County. In the past such facilities as Ft. Union Trading Post and Knife River Indian Villages, both National Historic Sites, have been recipients of LWCF dollars. That's the good news.

On the downside is the history of LWCF funding, which is riddled with hands-in-the-cookie-jar raiding. Every year the dollars are deposited at the U.S. Treasury. But like a lot of other so-called designated funds, rarely does LWCF survive the removal of dollars for other reasons. Over the history of the entire program, over $17 billion has been diverted from their authorized use, only to end up being spent in other unaccountable areas. I contend this is wrong and a return to honest budgeting should be a goal for all of us. To fully fund LWCF every year - which was the original intent back in 1965 I believe - is the ultimate solution.

The offices of Sens. Conrad and Hoeven were extremely gracious and their staffs were exceptionally accommodating as was that of Representative Berg. All members made efforts to fit me into rather busy schedules then took the time to listen to what I had to say. Rep. Berg even went so far as to give me a tour of the U.S. Capitol. I personally thank them all.

If the LWCF sounds like a worthwhile area to support, consider dropping these fine gentlemen a note and letting them know that.