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Local View: Minnesota's outdoors need Land and Water Conservation Fund

As those of us who call Minnesota home know, we have all benefited greatly from our state's breathtaking and wild public lands. Whether you enjoy recreating on our public lands or run a business guiding visitors on trips of lifetimes, we've all enjoyed access to pristine lands — access that in many areas is possible because of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, has funded conservation and recreation projects over the past 50-plus years. The concept is simple: Invest a portion of offshore drilling royalties toward protecting land, water, and recreation assets around the country. The fund is responsible for countless recreation and conservation projects in every state in the nation. Many, many access points and land purchases have only been made possible through LWCF.

Every year, nearly $900 million in offshore drilling royalties is deposited into the LWCF account in the federal treasury; yet, to date, more than $20 billion of that funding has been diverted elsewhere. In all these years, LWCF has only ever been fully funded one time. The fight to fully fund LWCF is ongoing. To this end, we need our representatives in Congress to support all LWCF funds being used for the purpose they were intended: conserving our public lands and ensuring recreation opportunities.

Minnesota's Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar have been strong supporters of LWCF, as have Reps. Rick Nolan and Betty McCollum, who has a powerful position on the congressional committee responsible for LWCF funding.

We need continued support for LWCF because, in addition to being drastically underfunded, LWCF expires this fall. I join many other business owners, recreation enthusiasts, and conservationists in calling on Congress to make LWCF permanent before it expires on Sept. 30. The LWCF program is crucial not only to continue access to recreation but for the survival of communities that depend on outdoor recreation and tourism to supplement their economies.

Over the past five decades, Minnesota has received approximately $245 million in LWCF funds, which has helped protect places like Voyageurs National Park, the Superior and Chippewa national forests, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and much more. I don't know about you, but I certainly cannot imagine our state without these pristine lands. Here in our state, outdoor recreation supports 140,000 jobs and $16.7 billion in consumer spending, much of this dependent on LWCF funds.

During 39 years in business in Ely, we've seen, almost every day, the value of America's investment in public lands. Our customers come from all corners of our country and from around the world to find the magic that is the Boundary Waters. They frequently take the time to stop by our shop just to say how much they gained personally from the sublime experience they found in the natural world here. It's what keeps us thrilled to continue our mission of standing up for wilderness and speaking up for public lands.

As a business owner and recreation enthusiast here in Minnesota, I believe it is clear that without LWCF our state would be lacking in conservation and recreation areas, which would negatively impact revenues for our businesses and communities.

President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's proposed 2018 and 2019 budgets virtually eliminate LWCF. While Congress acted to fund LWCF for this year, the program ends Sept. 30, placing future funding in serious danger. Congress must act now to preserve our history and wildlands for future generations. And we need our representatives in Congress to stand up in support. Without permanent reauthorization and robust funding for LWCF, Minnesota's heritage and livelihoods could be put on hold or lost forever.

Steve Piragis is the owner of Piragis Northwoods Company, a retail and guiding company in Ely.