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Statewide View: Minnesota will suffer without conservation fund

Outdoor recreation in Minnesota not only provides residents an abundance of opportunities to get outside, it also generates $16.7 billion annually, supporting 140,000 jobs, $4.5 billion in wages and salaries, and $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue each year. Many of the state's recreation areas were acquired and protected through the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, enacted by Congress in 1964 "to strengthen the health and vitality" of citizens through the planning, acquisition, and development of land and water outdoor recreation facilities. Congress created the fund to collect receipts primarily from outer continental shelf oil leases, which then were annually appropriated and distributed among the states.

The program, however, expired two Sundays ago — and if Congress does not act to immediately reauthorize it, Minnesota will suffer.

Since its inception, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has invested more than $245 million in Minnesota to protect outdoor recreation at urban parks and ballfields as well as at popular natural areas like the Saint Croix National Scenic River, Voyageurs National Park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, and the Chippewa and Superior national forests. The fund also goes toward protecting ecologically significant areas in Minnesota, such as the Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and the Koochiching-Washington Forest Legacy Project. These protected landscapes provide valuable outdoor recreation opportunities, ranging from fishing, hiking, camping, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing to close-to-home parks for inner-city kids.

In 2017, the city of Duluth received $750,000 for Lincoln Park restoration, part of a $13.3 million pot of money to assist 22 cities in 17 states with "projects looking to plan, build, and enhance parks and other outdoor recreation facilities in underserved communities." And, in perhaps the highest-profile project in the state, earlier this year, Congress dedicated $4 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund toward a community-supported project to protect 50,000 acres within Superior National Forest's iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for fishing, canoeing, hiking, and camping.

Congress authorized this long-standing program, which effectively leveraged federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant dollars with matching state and local funding, to receive $900 million annually from offshore drilling royalties. Yet Congress repeatedly cannibalized the fund for other purposes and only once since 1965 was the program fully funded. It was shocking when Congress failed to save the fund before it expired, given its wide bipartisan popularity.

Minnesota's U.S. Sen. Tina Smith spoke up for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and she helped shepherd a bill through committee to permanently re-authorize the fund, a big step in the right direction. It was great to have Sen. Smith's support along with the support of U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and others from Minnesota's congressional delegation.

At the same time, there was deep disappointment in those members of our congressional delegation who remained uncommitted to supporting this vital recreation and conservation program, especially in U.S. Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen. Please join us in urging them to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund program, which is so important to Minnesota's outdoor recreation and conservation lands.

We truly believe in the benefits of this program. We have seen direct results in our shop from expanded outdoor-recreation opportunities, including hiring two more mechanics and a doubling of sales of off-road bicycles. We have even seen similar increases in bicycle sales and service to upland game hunters and fly fishers, and we've tripled our children's bicycle sales. Our customers ride their bikes in state and federal parks but also camp, fish, and hike in the beautiful Minnesota wilderness.

Minnesota needs the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and our elected officials must work together to get it back.

Gene Oberpriller and Jennifer Oberpriller are partners in the One On One Bicycle Studio in Minneapolis. They wrote this for the News Tribune.