We in Maine are very fortunate to live in one of the most spectacular outdoor playgrounds on Earth. Whether it’s a blissful canoe trip up the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, hiking a scenic stretch along the Appalachian Trail, or watching a wondrous sunrise from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park — those are moments of aliveness you never forget.

Steve Ball

For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund — the most successful conservation program in U.S. history — has been instrumental in protecting irreplaceable lands and waters like those and enabling us to better access Maine’s wonderful natural resources. Authorized for $900 million annually, but fully funded only a few times since its inception, it has been responsible for funding the acquisition and enhancement of federal, state and local public lands in almost every state and county in the nation, ensuring that all Americans have access to recreate and enjoy our lands and parks.

Yet incredibly, Congress has been slow-moving, to say the least, to make this miracle fund a permanent and fully-funded source for America’s well-being.

Conceived in 1964, LWCF was slated to sunset in 2015, but was reauthorized by Congress for an additional three years.  However, Congress let LWCF expire in September 2018.  After much wrangling, the fund was permanently reauthorized as part of the bipartisan John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act and signed into law on March 12, 2019. Unfortunately, no assurance for future funding was provided.

That is where we are now.

Members in both the House and Senate have proposed bipartisan legislation to provide full and permanent funding, but President Trump has proposed nearly zeroing out money for LWCF — a move that provoked the ire of our own Sen. Angus King, as well as many other leaders on both sides of the aisle.

What makes any congressional indecisiveness, first to permanently reauthorize, and now to fully fund this vital program particularly nonsensical is that the many benefits provided by LWCF come at no cost to taxpayers. LWCF funds are taken only from a very small portion of the royalties paid by oil and gas companies drilling offshore.

Maine will be especially critical in determining the funding outcome, since all four of Maine’s congressional representatives — Sen. King, Rep. Chellie Pingree, Sen. Susan Collins and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jared Golden, who is a fellow veteran — are decision-makers in the process.

To date, LWCF has invested approximately $190 million in Maine through fives decades, protecting some of the state’s most special places and helping to ensure recreational access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.

On the federal level, those places include the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

LWCF state assistance grants have further supported hundreds of projects across Maine’s state and local parks, including Rangeley Lake State Park and Bigelow Preserve — all playing an important role in growing Maine’s lucrative $8.2 billion annual outdoor recreation economy.

U.S. military veterans quite often find that the great outdoors is a medicine that eases the transition back to civilian life and, not surprisingly, are vigorous in their support for fully funding LWCF.

In nature, veterans experience a sanctuary, free of stresses and uncertainties — a place with no worries where they can relax, enjoy themselves and their surroundings. The thought of coming back to their favorite outdoor places is what keeps many veterans intact, and those returning from military duty find a peace they haven’t known for a long time. It’s often a transformative experience and the first page in a new beginning.

In addition, veterans find meaning in America’s historic battlefields, monuments to our American heritage that are often protected by LWCF funding. Without that funding, we jeopardize the preservation of great military sites such as Gettysburg National Military Park and Valley Forge National Historical Park that provide history lessons to inform future generations.

LWCF has unquestionably been the best outdoor protection ally Americans could ever have. Now that Congress has taken the historic step to permanently renew the LWCF program, lawmakers must work together to finish the job and make permanent funding a reality. It’s an empty vessel to have permanent re-authorization without the guarantee of dedicated full funding.

Veterans know deeply that, in taking care of our outdoor places, they will take care of us.  Seen in this way, fully funding LWCF is an investment in the health and well-being of the American people.

Why would any member of Congress want to shortchange the welfare of their constituents by holding back LWCF funding?

Without further delay, Congress needs to act as the trusted public servants the people elected and preserve America’s life-giving recreational assets by fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Colonel (Ret.) Steve Ball served in the U.S. Army. He has been the director for government relations for the Maine Maritime Academy, taught at Erskine Academy and was a member of the adjunct faculty at Thomas College in Waterville. He lives in Windsor.