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Monday, December 12, 2011

Op-Ed: Save conservation fund for students

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Save conservation fund, for our students

During my 27 years as a teacher, I have witnessed time and again students' joy when they connect scientific content from the classroom to real life investigations in the outdoors. Some of my favorite memories in teaching have been moments watching students gasp at the spectacle of salmon spawning near the Wild Sky Wilderness -- an area I worked with Sen. Patty Murray for nine years to protect.

I worked on that bill because I know that future scientists are born in the outdoors. That is why I am so thankful to Sen. Murray not only for the Wild Sky, but also for co-sponsoring the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Act which, if it passes, will expand opportunities for experiential outdoor learning so drastically needed by today's students.

But future students may not be able to fully benefit from these efforts. Currently, some in Congress are seeking to eliminate or reduce funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which protects lands across the United States. LWCF provides funding for national parks, forests and refuges, as well as state and local parks.

North Puget Sound residents have the LWCF to thank for many of our kids' chances to experience the outdoors close to home. The LWCF has protected some of Washington's most engaging landscapes and wild places, from portions of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park to nearby treasures like Deception Pass.

The fund has helped create local parks in Everett like Howarth, Langus Riverfront, and Lions neighborhood park, just to name a few. And the LWCF helped to expand the Wild Sky, protecting the water quality needed by those spawning salmon that so impress my students.

When we conserve forests, natural areas and wildlife habitat, all Washington residents benefit -- especially students. Our parks and natural areas are outdoor classrooms where children learn by using all of their senses: tasting wild berries, smelling the scent of an old cedar forest, and watching with wonder the return of our wild salmon.

But the LWCF, the premier program to safeguard places for our students to experience the outdoors, is in grave danger of being slashed in Congress's 2012 budget. The House has proposed roughly $90 million for the program in 2012, a staggering 90 percent cut from the president's budget.

Without that funding, critical, ready-to-go opportunities will be lost. Critical projects to preserve our heritage in Ebey's Landing and to conserve the North Creek Forest, 24 acres of rich habitat in forests and streams near Bothell, will be lost, among others around the state.

It is important to note that the LWCF doesn't use a penny of taxpayer dollars. Instead, it is funded by offshore lease royalties paid by oil and gas companies. This program is a promise that Congress made to the American people in 1965 to offset the negative effects of offshore drilling.

Fortunately, our senators have rejected the drastic cuts in the House proposal and proposed $350 million in funding for the program this year. Sen. Murray has spoken up in support of the LWCF, and we are very lucky to have her as our champion. In her leadership role in the Senate, Sen. Murray is in a key position to protect outdoor spaces for our kids and grandkids.

Sen. Murray understands that we need to provide opportunities for the next generation to learn and excel, especially in science, by getting outside and discovering the marvels of our natural world. She and Sen. Maria Cantwell, who co-sponsored a bill to fully and permanently fund the LWCF, are champions for our quality of life and our children's. I urge others in Congress to follow their lead and support funding for the LWCF and to pass the No Child Left Inside legislation.

Mike Town has taught high school science for 27 years. Last year he was an Einstein Fellow with the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he researched STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education policy. He has hiked extensively throughout Snohomish County and worked closely with Washington Wild on the passage of the Wild Sky Wilderness Act.

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