Happy 50th birthday to one of Washington state’s greatest gifts to the nation, the park-land preservation program. Oh, and you’re canceled.
The trail up to Lake Serene near Index is breathtaking, both because of its switchback steepness and its idyllic alpine scenery with crashing waterfalls.
Only an hour drive from Seattle, it’s no surprise Lake Serene is one of the most popular, heavily-jammed hiking trails in the state.
But what the happy throngs probably don’t realize is that this trail passes through privately owned land in places. Years of behind-the-scenes work have crafted a way the trail could be enjoyed forever, with a purchase of 200 acres of the private holdings through the nation’s most effective park-preservation program.
Sounds great. Except Congress just canceled the program.
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Actually what Congress did, setting a new standard for dysfunction, is allow the wildly successfully, 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire. They killed it quietly, without a vote.
It leaves hundreds of millions of dollars of park and trail acquisitions in limbo around the U.S.
“Are we going to lose the Lake Serene trail?” wonders Charlie Raines, of the Seattle-based conservation group Forterra. “It seems unthinkable because it’s such a popular trail. But Congress just put every park project in the country in jeopardy.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was invented right here in the 1960s. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson hit on the idea of using profits from the depletion of one natural resource, offshore oil and gas, to preserve another resource for the public, park lands.
“These are places to hunt, fish, camp, picnic, swim, for boating or driving for pleasure, or perhaps simply for relaxation or solitude,” Jackson said to the Senate in 1964, shortly before senators passed the plan by a 92-1 vote.
Those were the days. Today that one no-voting senator would filibuster against the evils of big government and torpedo the idea.
In fact that’s essentially what has happened. Though it’s one of the few government programs that still has broad bipartisan support, the park fund was killed this week by one person — Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who took over this year as chairman of the House’s Natural Resources Committee.
He has said he believes the feds already own enough land. He suggested giving the oil-lease revenues back to the oil companies to be used for worker training. These aren’t taxes — it’s money from rent that big oil pays the public in order to drill on public lands. So now we’re going to refund it to them?
In any event, he refused to let reauthorization of the park fund go through his committee. So after 50 years of saving five million acres across all 50 states, the famed program was suffocated.
All of this year’s local wild-lands projects are now on hold. They include additions to the Pacific Crest Trail, the Nisqually wildlife refuge and Olympic National Park. One project was set to buy 145 acres at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island so that it isn’t instead turned into a subdivision. No one is sure what will happen to it now.
The threat to the Lake Serene trail most likely would come from logging, if the private land can’t be bought, Raines said. Many of the most popular hiking trails around here were saved from logging by this same program — including Mount Si, Rattlesnake Mountain and the jampacked Mailbox Peak Trail (so named because there’s a mail box at the summit).
“The people who hike up through all these incredible trails probably don’t know they wouldn’t be there without the land and water fund,” Raines says.
It has also preserved parts of Discovery and Gas Works parks in Seattle, Mercer Slough in Bellevue, Deception Pass and Lake Sammamish state parks, the Columbia River Gorge, the Potholes in Eastern Washington, sections of Mount Rainier National Park and hundreds of other lands around the state.
The contrast between Congress then and now is not flattering to our time. Our senator 50 years ago: creative and positive, leaving a gift. Congress today: destructive and negative, leaving a rift.
Congress doing more harm than good barely qualifies as news anymore. But because this program was born here and has been so crucial to the preservation of nature in this state, this time it feels personal.