By Kim Todd
They are not the most charismatic of creatures: albino crayfish, blind cavefish, Ozark big-eared bats. But these species, some so rare that they only live in a handful of caves in eastern Oklahoma, are very much in need of protection.
And they may just get it, thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Created in 1964, the LWCF was designed to provide $900 million a year in federal funding for the purchase of wildlands, from additional acreage for national parks to greenspace in the middle of cities. The money comes from offshore-oil-drilling leases.
Over its history, the fund has purchased land along the Appalachian Trail, acreage in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains and parts of the Big Sur coastline in California. But it's never lived up to its full potential; every year Congress allocates far less than the full $900 million authorized for LWCF and the rest is diverted into other federal programs.
But there are signs of change. Last year, Congress provided $12 billion in the Interior appropriations bill for 2001 for an array of conservation programs over the next six years. Of this, $540 million is earmarked for the LWCF in 2001: $450 million for federal projects and $90 million for state projects. While this still isn't the full amount, it is a leap from previous years when funding dipped to less than $200 million.
Congress committed to at least this level of LCWF support throughout the six years of the program. With President Bush's campaign pledge to fully fund the program at the $900 million level, even more money may be available next year.
Now the government is looking for places to buy, providing a golden opportunity for activists seeking to save treasured lands and the unique species that depend on them.
The Sierra Club's Wildlands Campaign is taking advantage of this by drawing up a shopping list of key federal acquisition projects. Dana Wolfe, of the Club's lands protection program, will go door to door on Capitol Hill, gathering support from each area's congressional delegation and meeting with Interior subcommittee staff, letting it be known that these land acquisitions are the Club's LWCF priorities.
To find out which wildlands Club members are interested in protecting with LWCF money, the Wildlands Campaign put out a call.
Paul Moore, conservation chair of the Oklahoma Chapter, jumped at the chance to save areas in his state.
But, as he discovered, it's not just as easy as snapping a photo of a favorite grove and sending it in. Not every plot is a good candidate. And even if it is, the current landowner should be willing and all the details nailed down with input from a real-estate expert before lobbying begins.
"We should avoid convincing lawmakers to earmark money for a deal that then falls through," said Wolfe. "There really should be a purchase agreement ready to go and signed before you go up to the Hill."
In Oklahoma, Moore originally had in mind an expanse of forestland, but had second thoughts when he looked at the list of qualifications. Then a Fish and Wildlife Service employee suggested acreage surrounding the Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge, an area carved with caves that provide habitat for the endangered Ozark big-eared bat. It seemed perfect.
"It's accessible land, maybe too accessible. As a result, it's under a lot of pressure from poultry farming and off-road vehicle use," said Moore, who has hiked and boated around the rugged area all his life. "These lands really needed someone to step in."
It helped that an agency had already done much of the work in determining the land's importance. Even if a purchase isn't completely ready to go, the Washington, D.C., office will help chapters link up with experts in their area.
"I wouldn't have been able to identify an area of significant biological value, but that's one of the great things about working for the Club - because the membership is so broad, you can go out quickly and find out what needs to be protected," Moore said.
The Sierra Club's list for 2002 is already in the final stages. It contains the Oklahoma proposal and more than 20 others, including several miles of the Carbon River near Mt. Rainer in Washington. Wolfe is currently shepherding the list around the Hill, but it's not too early to start angling for a spot in 2003.
That is, if the administration and Congress don't change their minds.
The Club plans to remind Bush of his support for full funding, just as it plans to hammer away at Congress so it doesn't pull back on the land acquisition money it promised.
"Our public lands are going to be facing a lot of threats in the next couple of years. While we'll be playing a lot of defense, this is one of the few things we can do to be proactive," said Wolfe. "They made a deal, and we're going to be sure they stick to it."
For more information: Contact Dana Wolfe at (202) 675-6690; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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