From Cape Cod to the Point Reyes peninsula in California, this summer tens of millions of Americans have enjoyed our nation's spacious array of seashores, parks, forests, wildlife refuges and urban playgrounds. A large segment of this outdoor estate was created from 1965 to 1981 under four presidents (two Democrats and two Republicans) when nearly $10 billion from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LCWF) was used to expand outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans.

Historically, the Conservation Fund was a blockbuster program. Financed by federal oil and gas royalties from production on the outer-continental shelf, this was one of the most sagacious investments the nation has ever made. Projects implemented under this program generated big increases in tourism and provided a potent, permanent economic stimulus for hundreds of gateway communities located near these new national assets. The nation suffered a big setback in 1981 when the Reagan administration decided this was a "bad" resource program and the funds earmarked to flow into the Conservation Fund were siphoned into the general Treasury to pay for the president's big military buildup.

In its prime, the fund galvanized action in every state and in thousands of communities. Enthusiastic state and local governments doubled the $5 billion in challenge-grants offered by Congress. This joint effort produced 37,000 conservation projects that ranged from ball fields in small towns to new beach parks in the coastal states to a greenway along Oregon's Willamette River to urban trails in Anchorage to the preservation of New Jersey's Great Swamp and the storied Allagash River in northern Maine.

At the national level, the other $5 billion of the Land and Water Conservation Fund made it feasible to purchase costly lands needed to endow the nation with a necklace of 14 national seashores and lakeshores in 13 states. To recite the names of some of these new national playgrounds -- Cape Cod, Fire Island, Assateague, Key Biscayne, Padre Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Apostle Islands, Indiana Dunes -- is to grasp how the fund encouraged the burgeoning conservation movement to propose big plans and see them fulfilled in a short span of years. The fund's largess also made it possible to make our national park system truly national by establishing new units in such mid-continent states as Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As this century expires, it is evident that the Reagan administration's policy was a mistake that stunted important opportunities for economic growth and thwarted a common effort to improve the quality of life in this country. Our century-long campaign to conserve the nation's natural wonders is the envy of other nations.

Today daunting new challenges line our horizons. Words I wrote in 1963 describe the current situation: "Each generation has its own rendezvous with the land . . . we are all brief tenants on this planet [and] by choice, or by default, we will carve out a land legacy for our heirs."

The best news conservationists have had in years is that there has been a shift of opinion in Washington, and key leaders of both political parties are sponsoring bills to revive the Conservation Fund. As one who helped create this program and has observed its ups and downs over the past 34 years, I am emboldened to offer a few suggestions about its renewal. It is important, above all, to reaffirm the original policy of sharing half of the revenues in the fund with state and local governments. And since most cities urgently need funds to acquire open space to control growth and curb sprawl, it might be appropriate to establish a special matching program for urban areas.

Conservationists in every city and every region are developing exciting plans that will enlarge the nation's green legacy if the financing of such projects is given a high priority. This says it would be logical to increase the annual flow of revenues into the fund to a level of at least $2 billion. (Bear in mind that if the annual inflow of $900 million fixed by Congress in 1967 is adjusted for inflation, an updated year 2000 figure would be in the range of $5 billion.)

It is patent that political dividends will flow to both the Republicans and the Democrats if the current Congress breathes new life into the Conservation Fund. The whole nation will applaud if, once again, a Rooseveltian spirit of bipartisanship prevails when this crucial issue is considered.

The writer, a former Democratic representative from Arizona, was secretary of the interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.