The Maine brand is rooted in our natural resources. We see this every day — a local farmer in the fields, a group of hikers embarking from a trailhead, a lobsterman pulling traps, a fisherman casting into swift-moving water, swimmers at the local beach, a logging truck rumbling to the local mill. It’s our competitive advantage, and it serves as the foundation of our economy. Maine voters, regardless of party, agree.

A recent statewide survey of voters revealed that a stunning 88 percent of Mainers agree that “protecting land, water and wildlife is critical to a strong state economy.” What’s more, when asked to describe, in their own words, the best thing about living in Maine, more than 63 percent of the state’s electorate named outdoors-related activities. That’s pretty remarkable, and it sets Maine apart from nearly every other state in the nation.

Moreover, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, more than 2.45 million people visited our state parks system in 2017 – the second highest annual total on record. In acknowledging the connection and the appreciation we share for our public lands, in early August, Gov. Paul LePage signed a financial order that grants Maine residents free day use of our state parks system through Labor Day.

At a time when common ground can be hard to find, conservation of our forests, lakes, rivers and coastline brings us together.

One of the programs responsible for investing in this connection is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A federal program that represents one of the biggest bargains in U.S. history, the Land and Water Conservation Fund doesn’t use tax dollars — it is funded by royalties that oil companies pay to the government for offshore drilling. This helps balance the environmental impacts associated with resource extraction by ensuring that new open spaces are accessible to all Americans.

When Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund 50 years ago, lawmakers did so knowing that conservation is fundamental to our natural resource-based economy and the health of our communities.

In Maine, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has provided funding for some of our most special places, ensuring access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, paddling, snowmobiling and other outdoor pursuits. Since its inception five decades ago, it has invested in Acadia National Park, the Bigelow Mountains, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund also funds the Forest Legacy Program, designed to conserve working forest land through conservation easements and fee acquisition. Forest Legacy, which was originally created for forest projects in the Northeast, supports timber-sector jobs and sustainable forest operations while enhancing wildlife habitat, water quality and guaranteeing recreational access. In recent years, Forest Legacy grants have contributed to places such as the Machias River Corridor, the Cold Stream Forest, the Leavitt Plantation and Grafton Notch.

And, aside from these iconic state landmarks and working forest lands, the Land and Water Conservation Fund provides grants to towns and cities for local recreation projects. These local sites offer a chance to explore trails, swim, picnic, play and access the many health benefits that time in nature provides: places like Riverside Park in Rumford, Clifford Park in Biddeford, the public playground in Boothbay and the public beach in the town of Strong. Indeed, every county and hundreds of towns and cities have benefited from these local actions.

Regrettably, this vitally important program regularly receives only a fraction of its full funding each year, and will completely expire at the end of September unless Congress acts.

Maine’s congressional delegation has consistently demonstrated strong leadership and support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and our members of Congress, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin, deserve thanks and credit for their actions in support of the program. With fewer than 50 days remaining until the Land and Water Conservation Fund expires, Congress needs to act now. We strongly encourage our delegation to push House and Senate leadership to fully fund this important program before it sunsets on Sept. 30.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund succeeds in large part because it is designed to be inclusive, drawing on the creativity and problem-solving skills of Maine citizens all over the state who are working for a better future in their communities. Renewing this program not only is good for conservation but also makes sense for our economy and the Maine brand.

Kate Dempsey is state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

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