By Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation
The U.S. Department of the Interior manages and sustains America’s lands, water, wildlife and energy sources as well as responsibilities to tribal nations. Its work permeates the daily lives of Americans—personally and financially. To this point, a report by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation shows the state’s natural resources drive $30 billion in economic impact, $8 billion in wages, and $405 million in state and local tax revenue.
If these resources aren’t conserved and managed for the future, we risk losing the economic benefits and the countless quality of life benefits of nature. The recent confirmation hearing of Congressman Ryan Zinke signaled a direction that is promising for the quality of life of Tennesseans.
In his testimony, Congressman Zinke voiced support of three issues particularly important to our state: more equitable federal funding of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the idea that public lands should remain public, and that the Land and Water Conservation Fund should be permanently reauthorized.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the crown jewel of the national parks service. Hosting twice as many visitors as Yellowstone, it receives half as much federal funding. Its budget is further limited by the fact that the conditions of its creation prevent the collection of entrance fees. The result is that the most visited national park in the country has a large—and ever growing—list of deferred projects that diminish the park.
Sen. Lamar Alexander rightly questioned Congressman Zinke about this disparity, who committed to more equal funding and, separately, an infrastructure bill that would “take a big bite out of the differed maintenance of infrastructure” across the national park system. This effort would be a boon to the Smokies and associated communities.
Public Lands Staying Public
Over the past two years, the idea of turning control of federal lands over to states and private groups has gained traction in certain sectors of the political spectrum. However, this effort, if realized, will unravel the networks of natural spaces and wildlife that Tennesseans enjoy and, in many cases, rely on economically.
Federal lands that have been transitioned to private hands are lost to the public-at-large altogether. And lands transitioned to states, which have more limited budgets, are typically sold to the highest bidder to bolster those budgets. In both cases, not only is the natural space gone but so is the wildlife, recreation and economic activity it nurtured.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund
In 2015, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was allowed to expire, and was subsequently revived as part of the overall federal appropriations process until 2018. This important federal program has helped pay for critical land conservation projects in Tennessee, which in turn are the backbone of tourism- and outdoor recreation-based economic benefits.
In contrast to President Trump’s position, Congressman Zinke, invoking the legacy of former President Theodore Roosevelt, strongly endorsed keeping public lands in public hands and permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Federation applauds this long-term view that appreciates the benefits of holding these resources in the public trust, and maintaining them, for everyone’s equal benefit.
The North American Model of conservation is the envy of the world and has been adopted by a number of countries. Our wildlife literally belongs to the citizens and we all have equal right to that resource. But that means we also have equal responsibility for protecting it and our public lands are a vital means of conservation and ensuring Americans can access these resources. We welcome a vision of conservation and investment for the betterment of Tennessee.